Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Understanding the law of unintended consequences

The law of unintended consequences posits that any action has outcomes that are not intended or anticipated by the actor.

Merton noted that these consequences could be construed as positive or negative with the desirability of either based on context.

While rooted in societal impact, the law of unintended consequences is relevant to almost any scenario but is commonly associated with economic decisions, government policy, disasters, and the environment.

The three types of unintended consequences

The three types of unintended consequences are described below.

1 – Unexpected drawbacks 

These are undesirable consequences that occur at the same time as those deemed desirable. 

When the US government developed its freeway network in the 1950s, rail as a transport option became overlooked in favor of road transportation.

Car ownership reached such an extent in the 1990s that heavy traffic forced many to look at rail transport, but the infrastructure wasn’t there to meet demand.

2 – Unexpected benefits 

Otherwise referred to as serendipity or luck. When the Korean Demilitarized Zone was created it preserved a tract of forest habitat for native wildlife.

Aspirin, developed to be a pain reliever, was discovered to have anticoagulant properties that lowered the risk of a heart attack.

3 – Perverse results 

Perverse results are consequences that are contrary to the original intention. In other words, when a solution exacerbates the problem.

When vehicle manufacturers introduced airbags as a safety feature in the 1990s, they caused an increase in mortalities among children who were hit as the airbag deployed in a collision.

What causes unintended consequences?

In his work, Merton discovered five core reasons for unintended consequences:

  1. Mistakes, no matter how simple, can hinder the accurate prediction of an outcome. These mistakes result from a lack of knowledge of a specific situation.
  2. The assumption that repeating past actions will produce the same results in the future.
  3. Rushed or hastily considered actions based on the need for an immediate solution.
  4. Actions stemming from what Merton calls “basic values”. These are pervasive, entrenched beliefs, norms, and values that prevent proper consideration of the impact of an action on individuals or society.
  5. The self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a term Merton coined to describe a scenario where an incorrect definition of the situation evokes behavior that causes the original false conception to come true.

Key takeaways:

  • The law of unintended consequences posits that any action has outcomes that are not intended or predicted by the actor.
  • The three types of unintended consequences are unexpected drawbacks, unexpected benefits, and perverse results.
  • American sociologist Robert K. Merton believed there were five core drivers of unintended consequences. Chief among these is the notion that mistakes due to ignorance can skew outcome predictions and the assumption that past actions will produce the same results in the future.

Related Visual Concepts:

einstellung-effect
Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).
peter-principle
The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.
straw-man-fallacy
The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.
streisand-effect
The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.
heuristic
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.
recognition-heuristic
The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision-making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.
representativeness-heuristic
The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.
take-the-best-heuristic
The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.
biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.
bundling-bias
The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.
barnum-effect
The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

Main Free Guides:

Scroll to Top
FourWeekMBA
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]