What is the Law of unintended consequences? I am looking for a
definition and some examples.
I assembled a number of definitions of the Law of Unintended
Consequences together with examples of this concept in different
settings or environments.
Konrad J. Friedemann defines the law of unintended consequences as
the proposition that every undertaking, however well-intentioned, is
generally accompanied by unforeseen repercussions that can overshadow
the principal endeavor.
- An interstate highway system designed to evacuate urban masses in
the event of nuclear attack begets unsightly urban sprawl and
every-greater traffic congestion.
- Technological innovations intended to save labor and deliver us from
stress and drudgery lead to information overload and unrelenting
- Televised court proceedings meant to reinforce democracy and freedom
of information in an open society create celebrity jurists and
undermine public trust.
Source: Fredrikson & Byron P.A.
The Law of unintended consequences holds that almost all human
actions have at least one unintended consequence Unintended
consequences are a common phenomenon, due to the complexity of the
world and human over-confidence.
"Prohibition", intended to suppress the alcohol trade, drove many
small-time alcohol suppliers out of business, consolidating the hold
of large-scale organized crime over the illegal alcohol industry.
The "War on Drugs", intended to suppress the illegal drug trade, has
driven many small-time drugs dealers out of business, consolidating
the hold of large-scale organized crime over the illegal drugs
The introduction of rabbits into Australia for sport led to an
explosive growth in population, and led to rabbits becoming a major
pest in Australia.
Blowback describes the phenomenon of supporting a foreign regime or
terrorist entity, on the principle that your enemy's enemy is your
friend, only to have it attack you, often with the weapons and
resources you gave it.
- Support of Colonel Manuel Noriega
- Support of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and later the Taliban
- support of Saddam Hussein
Perverse incentives are one of the most common forms of unintended
consequences. A perverse incentive is a term for an incentive that has
the opposite effect to that intended.
- Paying the executives of corporations proportionately to the size
of their corporation, intended to encourage them to grow their
companies by trading, has caused many of them to pursue mergers to
grow their companies, to the detriment of their shareholders.
- Funding fire departments by the number of fire calls made, intended
to reward the fire departments that do the most work, discourages them
from fire-prevention activities.
- In India, a program paying people a bounty for each rat pelt handed
in, intended to exterminate rats, led instead to rat farming.
- Requiring strong passwords for access control systems causes many
users to write their passwords down (as they are now impossible to
remember), negating the security advantage of strong passwords.
- "Three-strikes laws" which are intended to be tough on criminals,
but actually encourage them to murder people to avoid getting caught,
as the sentence for murder is no worse than the consequences of being
caught for the third time.
Rev. Dr. Forrest Church defines the Law of Unintended Consequences in
his February 2003 sermon:
Put in a nutshell, the law of unintended consequences teaches that
the result of our actions is almost never what we intend. However
bright or strong we may think we are, life is not that mutable.
Whenever we act-especially when the stakes are high- surprising things
go wrong. And surprising things go right. We can have our way and
later regret it, or not have our way and later be thankful we didn't.
Rational actions can trigger irrational results. Adding further to
our humility, among both the fine and also the twisted things that
happen in our lives, most spring-some obliquely but others
directly-from the law of unintended consequences.
Rev. Dr. Forrest Church gives an example of the law of unintended
consequences using the US foreign policy in the Middle:
In Afghanistan, for instance, for a full decade the United States
government armed the radical Mujahideen, while offering extensive CIA
intelligence backup for their efforts. We even helped construct Osama
bin Laden's storied high-tech caves, designing and installing his
air-conditioning system, all in an effort to dislodge the Soviet Union
from its foothold in the region. At the time, one CIA operative
admiringly described Osama bin Laden as "a man with a vision, who
knows precisely how he wants to convert that vision into reality." A
decade later, when the Soviets finally conceded defeat and withdrew
from what had become their own Vietnam, in their place our erstwhile
allies quickly became our most implacable foes, with their nation the
base camp for a pan-Islamic fundamentalist Jihad. Yesterday's "freedom
fighters" became today's "terrorists."
Unitarian Universalist Association: The Law of Unintended Consequences
The Law of Unintended Consequences
The real-world implications of actions you take may be far different
from what seems logical and obvious.
The problem seems obvious, and the solution seems sure-fire. But the
solution has created another problem.
To paraphrase Robert Lucky, the Bell Labs (Bellcore) researcher,
leader, and society observer, it's impossible to foresee all the
consequences of being clever.
The above observation has both a positive and a negative
interpretation that is evident in the following examples.
When Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web to enhance the
publishing and distribution of physics papers at CERN, (..)
Berners-Lee didn't envision the Web as we know it today and how it
would change society.
Physicist and inventor Michael Pupin was rightfully hailed a
technical hero when he solved the signal-dispersion problem of
telegraphy and telephony transmission lines around the turn of the
century. Pupin achieved this feat by adding loading coils to
compensate for line capacitance, which shapes the spectral response of
the lines, thus improving analog-signal quality. But he certainly
didn't anticipate the nasty difficulties these coils would cause more
than 50 years later when digital signals began to use these analog
Source: EDN Access
Another example is when changes in the computer environment are
subject to The Law of Unintended Consequences. The law of unintended
consequences is generally applied to technological advances that solve
one problem but cause another. In this view, the problem created may
be worse than that, which was solved.
The general concept involved here is simple. With only the purest of
intentions, you want to install a new piece of hardware, or a software
package, or make some changes to your computers system settings. You
carefully follow the directions provided, but at the end of the
procedure your computer shows symptoms of problems that it had not
evidenced prior to your newest acquisition.
The Law of Unintended Consequences: Ken B. Dwight
The law of unintended consequences is that actions of peopleand
especially of governmentalways have effects that are unanticipated or
Adam Smith's "invisible hand," the most famous metaphor in social
science, is an example of a positive unintended consequence. Smith
maintained that each individual, seeking only his own gain, "is led by
an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his
intention," that end being the public interest. "It is not from the
benevolence of the butcher, or the baker, that we expect our dinner,"
Smith wrote, "but from regard to their own self interest."
The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Unintended Consequences by Rob
As Smith observed, an economic system is made up of dozens, if not
hundreds, of connected parts, and that a change in one factor is
likely to have unforeseen, and often unpleasant, effects elsewhere.
To give a simple example: lowering interest rates in an attempt to
boost business may trigger an unsustainable bubble in house prices.
The American Enterprise Online:
The Law of Unintended Consequences is the tendency for good
intentions to deliver a bad outcome.
Here are more examples of the law of unintended consequences prepared
by Rhéal Nadeau:
- If we tell a child not to lick a metal post on a freezing day, the
child is more likely to try it to see if that's true.2
- A standard response to a "Fresh paint" sign is to touch to see if
the paint really is wet.
In either case, telling someone not to do something increases the
temptation to do just that - and thus often results in exactly the
behavior one was trying to avoid.
Dom Nozzi gives examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences in
Public Safety Effort:
Liability management (ensuring that your organization is not doing
things that increase the chances of lawsuits), which is justified to
guard against costly lawsuits.
Often, we decide not to build public facilities, such as skateboard
parks or imaginative youth play equipment (or plant trees on school
grounds?), even when they are affordable and popular (as these
facilities are) because of the threat of someone getting hurt and
suing the responsible agency.
Public Safety Effort:
"High-tech," catastrophic medical care, which is justified to
heroically save or extend lives.
Such care is extremely costly, which makes the overall health care
system rather unaffordable in the U.S., and de-emphasizes important
efforts such as preventive care, which has a bigger "pay off" in terms
of extending the length of lives.
Public Safety Effort:
Trees severely pruned or chopped down, or kept outside of the "clear
zone" of streets, which is justified to protect overhead power lines,
and guard against drivers crashing into trees if they veer off the
Trees cut back or moved away from streets make our community and
neighborhoods substantially less attractive and less shaded. Pulling
trees back from the street also makes the street more "forgiving" and
creates more of a "racetrack" feeling, which results in more reckless,
high-speed, dangerous travel by cars.
Public Safety:Dom Nozzi
Law of unintended consequences
Example OR examples "Law of unintended consequences"
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