The Law of Unintended Consequences can be stated in many ways. The formulation forming the basis of this discussion is as follows:
“The Law of Unintended Consequences states that every decision or action produces outcomes that were not motivations for, or objectives of, the decision or action.”
Like many definitions, this statement of “the law” may seem obscure to some and obvious to others. This condition is often evidence of significant nuance. In the present case, much of the nuance has developed as a result of the morphing use of terms and the contexts in which these terms are most commonly used.
The transformation of terminology, examples of unintended consequences, how to minimize negative effects, and more are explored in this installment of “The Third Degree.”
Unanticipated Consequences of Social Action
Sociologist Robert K. Merton popularized the concept of unanticipated consequences in his 1936 paper “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” In this paper, Merton presents several causal factors; these are explained, in brief, below.
Incomplete information creates “blind spots” in decision-makers’ understanding of likely or potential outcomes. Merton does not use this term; it is the conjunction, for simplicity, of two concepts. Merton differentiates between knowledge possessed (the “ignorance” factor) and the knowledge conceivably obtainable. Ignorance is a second-order cause; the distinction has little value at this level of discussion. Therefore, incomplete information can be used to describe any lack of knowledge, regardless of its cause.
Drug and alcohol prohibition provides the quintessential example of unintended consequences. Lawmakers do not account for the ways in which people will respond to legislation. Black markets are established, where the elimination of open competition allows organized crime to flourish. As profits from illicit sales rise, escalating violence follows. Systems develop to facilitate criminal activity, leading to an expansion into other enterprises – counterfeiting, human trafficking, or any other. And then there’s the corruption…
Even if decision-makers possess “perfect” (i.e. complete, accurate) information, the potential for error remains. Several types of error could occur, including analysis, interpretation, and prediction errors. All decisions are susceptible to errors; this is one reason many are paralyzed by the need to make one (see the “Making Decisions” series).
Transitioning to piece-rate wages in a manufacturing operation often suffers from error in analysis and prediction. The wage structure may be changed with the expectation of an increase in employee wages and improved standard of living. A simultaneous increase in profits, due to higher production rates, may also be anticipated. However, an intense focus on quantity may result, causing workers to accept lower quality and relaxed safety standards. The end result is lower sales, degrading conditions, and a decline in employee’s overall well-being.
The “imperious immediacy of interest” refers to situations in which a sense of urgency prompts actions, sometimes extreme, without thorough consideration of risks or consequences. Attention is focused on addressing the most pressing concern, while all other issues are essentially ignored. Consider the case of a parent entering a burning building to rescue a child. The imperious immediacy of a child in danger prevents consideration of the probability of death from smoke inhalation, roof collapse, etc. before running inside.
The “basic values” of a country, family, or other cultural group can lead people to act in predetermined ways without consideration of potential outcomes or alternative actions. The term “cultural norms” is often used to describe a similar phenomenon. For an illustration of the impact of basic values or norms, consider the following example.
In a society in which a woman is subjugated to the will of her father, caring for him in his elder years may be a primary responsibility. She is likely to do so without hesitation, though it may deprive her of opportunities to create a fulfilling life for herself. She may be unable to develop social ties, through marriage or otherwise, that ensure she has a caregiver in her time of need.
Finally, public predictions can influence behavior to such an extent that the predictions do not come true. This is known as a “self-defeating prophecy,” where awareness of a prediction prevents its fruition. For example, the prediction of the extent to which ozone depletion would effect the earth and its inhabitants led to bans on the use of chlorofluorocarbon-based refrigerants and aerosols (CFCs). Instead of continued depletion, the ozone layer has entered a recovery phase.
As an aside, self-defeating prophecy has a better-known counterpart – the self-fulfilling prophecy. In this case, the prediction influences behavior such that realization of predicted outcomes is accelerated. For example, news of distress in a nation’s financial system may cause a “run” on banks, precipitating collapse.
Consequences of a decision or action can be considered on two dimensions, as summarized in Exhibit 1: anticipated/unanticipated and desirable/undesirable. The anticipated/unanticipated dimension describes whether or not a certain outcome had been predicted. It says nothing about how a prediction was made or why an outcome was not predicted (error, incomplete information, etc.). Accuracy of predictions is a secondary matter for purposes of this discussion; decision-makers are credited for conducting an analysis, despite its imperfections.
The desirable/undesirable dimension is highly subjective, requiring a normative judgment. The perspective of a person is fundamental to this judgment; there may be strong disagreement regarding the desirability of an action or outcome (e.g. labor vs. management, homeowner vs. property developer, etc.) In the public policy realm, officials may declare opposition to a decision while secretly finding it personally or politically beneficial.
Consequences of a decision or action that are anticipated and desirable are the intended outcomes – the objectives and motivations for it. Outcomes that are neither desirable nor anticipated are the unintended consequences. Evolution and usage of this term is discussed further in the next section.
Outcomes of a decision or action that are undesirable, but anticipated, are called “double effect” consequences. Double effect consequences occur when anticipated negative effects of an action are deemed acceptable in light of the desirable outcomes expected. For example, the displacement of valley residents is accepted to obtain the benefits of man-made “lakes” or reservoirs, such as hydroelectric power and drought resilience.
Outcomes that are unanticipated, but desirable, are attributed to serendipity. In our modern society, however, it is likely that some grandstander will take credit for any positive effects. Worse, this ne’er-do-well will probably spout buzzwords like synergy, equity or other words s/he doesn’t understand.
Transformation of Terminology
The problem of unintended consequences has been considered by a number of historical luminaries, including Niccolo Machiavelli, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Vilfredo Pareto. Despite the intellectual might of his predecessors, Merton’s work seems to be the foundation of contemporary thought on the subject.
Use of Merton’s term of art, “unanticipated consequences,” is uncommon today; it has been supplanted by “unintended consequences.” In fact, Merton himself made this transition in later works. He also dropped the word “purposive” from later versions of his seminal paper, claiming it is redundant (“all action is purposive”). This is an odd claim, however, as it seems important to him to differentiate between conduct (purposive) and behavior (reflexive) in the original paper.
Merton’s abandonment of purposive is peripheral to the current discussion. It is mentioned only to demonstrate that the transition in terminology used in his work is not isolated to one word and seems to indicate evolving views or a new agenda. We cannot be certain of his motivations, of course, but they are worth pondering.
In modern usage, the term “unintended consequences” is typically invoked to imply that referenced outcomes were both undesirable and unanticipated. Unfortunately, it can also be used to make intentionally opaque statements. Those making such statements rely on a form of self-deception or, at minimum, a lack of critical analysis to manipulate an audience. Receivers of the message are encouraged to interpret “unintended” to mean “unanticipated”, though that may not be true. The unforeseen is presented as unforeseeable to avoid culpability. Similarly, the messages are intended to convey to the audience that the speaker finds the outcomes objectionable – even if profiting from them – to project a favorable image. While not exclusive to it, nefarious use of ambiguity is pervasive in the political arena. For this reason, discussions of terminological distortion frequently return to examples in politics.
As de Zwart points out, conflating “unintended” and “unanticipated” obscures the fact that many decisions are difficult or unpopular because undesirable outcomes are anticipated. Opacity is often used to deflect or minimize responsibility for decisions or their consequences, particularly when there is no solid, logical defense (i.e. rational basis) to offer.
Critics of a decision often cite unintended consequences as evidence of decision-makers’ incompetence, complacency, or indifference. Doubts about the truth of claims that negative consequences were unanticipated may even prompt accusations of blatant malice.
If decision-makers seek to distance themselves further from responsibility for actions, Merton provides additional replacement terms. There are no longer intended outcomes (objectives) and unintended consequences; there are merely “manifest functions” and “latent functions.” It is difficult to imagine a purpose to which these terms are better suited than providing political “cover” through opacity. “Don’t blame me; it’s a latent function!”
Respect the Law
When it comes to unintended consequences, respecting the law begins with recognizing it as a legitimate concern and accepting responsibility for all outcomes. To minimize negative effects, unintended consequences must be considered as thoroughly as objectives. That is, both manifest functions and latent functions require analysis. Several strategies for minimizing unintended consequences are described below.
Early use of “unintended” as a synonym for “unanticipated” may have been an innocuous substitution. As the terminological transformation is near-complete, however, the term has come to represent purposeful ambiguity. “Fuzzy” terminology, where a speaker’s meaning is not clear, makes disingenuous statements more defensible. A lack of clear definition permits literal use of terms when an alternate understanding is common and vice versa. If questioned, the misinformation is attributed to a simple misunderstanding, rather than obfuscation. In an ironic twist, nefarious use of the term “unintended consequences” may, itself, be an unintended consequence.
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[Link] “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” Robert K. Merton. American Sociological Review; December, 1936.
[Link] “Unintended but not unanticipated consequences.” Frank de Zwart. Theory and Society; April 12, 2015.
[Link] “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” Mark Manson. MarkManson.net.
[Link] “The Law of Unintended Consequences: Shakespeare, Cobra Breeding, and a Tower in Pisa.” Farnam Street.
[Link] “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” Lori Alden. Econoclass, 2008.
[Link] “Unintended Consequences.” Rob Norton. EconLib.
[Link] “Unintended consequences.” Wikipedia.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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