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Unintended Consequences: Everything You Need To Know With Examples, Causes, And Remedies

In this article you will learn about some high-profile examples of unintended consequences. What’s more, you will find that with a little forethought you can minimize unintended consequences from happening. Surprisingly, you will alsol be surprised that not all unintended consequences are bad for you.

High-Profile Examples of Unintended Consequences.

Econo Class offers several unintended consequences of policies that lawmakers or the public either ignored or didn’t anticipate. 

Unintended Consequences - the domino effect

Three Strikes Laws.

Several states have laws requiring judges to impose tough sentences for a third felony conviction. Unintended Consequence:  increase in the murder rate.

Seat Belt Laws.

Seat belts protect drivers and passengers. In this case, the seat belt laws resulted in an increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

Banning DDT in Less Developed Countries.

Ban was put in place because DDT caused cancer and harmed wildlife. Due to banning DDT, malaria increased dramatically killing tens of millions of people. 

Don’t Talk To Strangers.

Parents and teachers often instruct children not to talk to strangers like the “stranger danger” campaign. Examples of unintended consequences included: 1) Lost or in danger children hide from strangers who are trying to help; 2) Inhibits social development making it more difficult to spot dangerous people or situations.

FDA Drug Approvals.

The Federal Drug Agency (FDA) spends more time testing drugs to assure safety. As a result, the unintended consequence is that long FDA drug approvals can cause more deaths due to delay in approval of a new drug.

Reduced Logging and Protect the Threatened Northern Spotted Owl. 

Injunction in 1991 greatly reduced logging on the national forests in the Pacific Northwest.  Unintended Consequence: Resulted in more, not fewer, acres of forest being harvested worldwide due to increasing prices and harvesting of less productive forests.

Cigarette Taxes.

Between 1992 and 2000, the average state cigarette tax rose by 64%. As a result, the unintended consequence was that the gross tax revenue from cigarette taxes only rose 35%. This is because smugglers now buy cigarettes in low-tax states and sell them in high-tax states. Additionally, organized crime and terrorists are increasingly involved in this business.

Steel Tariffs.

In 2002, President Bush imposed a tariff on steel imports in order to protect the steel industry from foreign competition. As a result, the unintended consequences of the steel tariffs was that it cost more American jobs than it was saving.

Vegetarians and Animal Rights.

There is an ethical reason for becoming a vegetarian or vegan:  it does the least harm to animals. Surprisingly, there is evidence that vegetarianism has led to an increase in animal deaths.

Saving Horses From Slaughter.

Horse slaughter is now banned in Texas and Illinois, home to the last three horse slaughterhouses in the United States. As a result, the unintended consequence is that horses are now transported across the border and likely slaughtered in a more gruesome manner.

What Are Ways to Minimize Unintended Consequences?

sBlog’s The Law of Unintended Consequences: Shakespeare, Cobra Breeding, and a Tower in Pisa offers several ways for us to minimize unintended consequences. Specifically, these rational thinking techniques include:

  • Inversion. When we invert our thinking, we consider what we want to avoid, not what we want to cause. So rather than seeking perfection, we should avoid stupidity.
  • Look for Disconfirming Evidence. Indeed, instead of us looking for information that confirms that our actions will have the desired consequences, we should rigorously search for evidence that they will not.
  • Understanding Our Circle of Competence. Each of us has areas we understand well and are familiar with. Hence, when we act outside our circle of competence, we increase the risk of unintended consequences.
  • Second-Order Thinking. We often forget that our actions can have two layers of consequences, of which the first might be intended and the second unintended.

The Unintended Consequences of Prohibition – Detail Example.

Capone, An Example of Unintended Consequences
Capone, An Unintended Consequence

The U.S. Senate ratified the Eighteenth Amendment of The U.S. Constitution in 1919 prohibiting alcohol in the United States. At the time, the general public thought Prohibition would be the cure for the country of alcoholism, family violence, and political corruption. However, Congress appealed the Eighteenth Amendment 13 years later. As a result, many unintended consequences occurred during those 13 years. To list, Mistakes Were Made blog details the following 10 unintended consequences of Prohibition.

  • Rise of Illegal Speakeasies
  • Underground Distilleries
  • Rise of Organized Crime
  • Abuse of Medicinal Use Alcohol
  • Rise of Sacramental Wine Usage
  • Individual States Refusal to Enforce Prohibition
  • Poor Quality Alcohol Killed U.S. Citizens
  • Rise of Alcohol Smuggling
  • Harder to Get a Drink After Prohibition Ended

Reasons That Inadvertent Consequences Can Be Bad For You, But Also Good.

Rob Norton’s Unintended Consequences provides a great history on the study of unintended consequences and details the reasons for unintended consequences. For details, see below:

Reasons For Negative Unintended Consequences.

Sociologist Robert K. Merton’s Five Sources of Unintended Consequence (four negative and one positive) include:

  • Ignorance. Makes a decision with no knowledge of the situation or how a system works.
  • Error. May have the facts, but bad analytical errors are made.
  • Willful Ignorance. This is usually because the focus is on short-term gains. As an example, decision-makers, like regulators and legislators, may have the knowledge and experience to know the consequences, but go forward anyway.
  • Basic Values. Here the requirement for or against something leads to just the opposite. As an example, a person or society has a strong work ethic of hard work, which leads to a decline of the hard work ethic with the accumulation of wealth.

Reasons For Positive Unintended Consequences.

  • The Invisible Hand. Adam Smith, a Scottish economist and philosopher, developed the concept of the “invisible hand“. To explain, he 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.
  • Self-Defeating Prediction. This is Merton’s positive source of unintended consequences. Specifically, a prediction is made such as “that population growth will lead to mass starvation” leads to scientific breakthroughs in agricultural productivity negating the prediction.

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