Famous Examples of Unintended Consequences

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Introduction

Unintended consequences are results of actions and come in three forms:

  • unexpected benefits (a positive result, usually people put this down to good karma if it happens to a person as a result of their actions)
  • unexpected drawbacks (usually put down to bad karma as a result of actions)
  • perverse results (also put down to bad karma, but often amusing thanks to the sense of irony it delivers).

1. Unexpected Benefit: Aspirin

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The common and popular painkiller used mostly for headaches, has recently been found to have a secondary benefit that has led to some medics recommending people take one every day regardless of whether they have a headache or not. One active ingredient works as a great anticoagulant which can aid heart health and prevent heart attacks. It is said to reduce the severity of some strokes, particularly those associated with thrombosis. More often than not, side effects are negative but this is one of those rare occasions.

2. Unexpected Benefit: Exercise

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Exercise is good for our physical health but there are many positive side effects associated with a regular workout. It has been shown to release dopamine into the brain which increases our general state of wellbeing. Its also been shown to increase our sex lives ‘ true it will give us more stamina, but it makes us more confident, sexier and increases our desire levels. Finally, insomniacs often report feeling restless. Getting regular exercise helps you sleep better.

3. Unexpected Benefit: Cigarette Smoke

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We all know about the dangers of cigarette smoke: toxic chemicals in your lungs can cause any number of cancers, particularly of the lungs. It can also increase your chances of pneumonia, reduces lung capacity and any number of illnesses. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that for some reason, smoking over many years reduces the risk of Parkinson’s Disease. The number of cigarettes does not matter; the association has been drawn with long-term smoking.

4. Unexpected Drawback: AOL ‘Scunthorpe Problem’

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The problem that started an entire internet term came from a town in Northern England. Residents of Scunthorpe found in the late 1990s that they could not create accounts for the ISP an account of an expletive being in their town’s name. There are many more examples of so-called ‘Scunthorpe Problems’, but this was so big and so widespread that the term caught on to apply to any unintended denial of service thanks to hidden profanity. Most notably, later residents of the same town could not search Google for local businesses.

5. Unexpected Drawback: Prohibition

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Any prohibition, but particularly referring to alcohol in the USA in the 1930s, shows the effect of banning something that most people enjoy. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the criminalisation of alcohol led to a crackdown on small breweries. It also created a lucrative trade for the criminal gangs who could afford to produce it and sell it. Critics of the ‘War on Drugs’ also suggest that cracking down has led to greater profitability for criminals that supply it.

6. Unexpected Drawback: Blowback

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A word that has become far more familiar to us in the last decade, thanks to western foreign policy since the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, funding of certain insurgency groups or fringe pressure groups in developing countries has led to the rise of modern terrorist groups. The US government funding the Afghan Mujahideen the slow Soviet expansion led to the rise of Al Qaeda in the following decades.

7. Perverse Result: Streisand Effect

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We know now that the more fuss somebody makes about something on the internet, attempting to get it removed, the greater awareness people have of it making it more popular than it might otherwise have been. It is named after the American signer Barbara Streisand in 2003 attempted to suppress images of her house in California. Yet the campaign led to greater publicity meaning that more people saw the offending material ‘ something that is repeated time and time again. Perhaps Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses would not have been so popular had it not already created such a stir.

8. Perverse Result: Peltzman Effect

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It is regrettable that any safety legislation introduced by government (such as mandatory seatbelts, cycle helmets etc) will nearly always lead to an increase in the number of injuries and deaths. It is believed that official endorsement of their safety leads users to take greater and greater risks; people believe themselves almost immune, perhaps overestimating the safety aspect of the legislation and the device they are being compelled to use for their own and everybody else’s safety. This increase in accidents is called the ‘Peltzman Effect’.

9. Perverse Result: Cobra Effect

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Though the term has become a catchall phrase to apply to similar circumstances, the term came about during colonial rule in India. The British governors were concerned about a growing number of venomous cobras and offered residents rewards for every dead cobra they could present. The problem was the pure greed of capitalism as people started to farm cobras purely to kill them and sell them to the authorities. A similar situation happened in Vietnam under French rule when the government offered rewards for dead rats ‘ they too were farmed.

10. Perverse Result: Government Waste

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Seemingly, that it does not appear to reward cost effectiveness. In any government department that has a budget, spending is positively encouraged. Any saving in one year will often result in a cut budget the following year, even if the budget was required. On the other hand, wasteful departments who regularly go over budget are regularly rewarded with extra money ‘ proving that there is no incentive to save taxpayers money. In the UK, most public road works are carried out in February and March, pot holes filled in as highways agencies seek to spend all of their budget to ensure they get the same (or more) money the following year.

Conclusion

Unintended consequences are ironic, sometimes they make us laugh and sometimes they are tragic. Looking back to ancient myth, when the head of the Hydra was cut off, more heads grew to replace it ‘ this is the quintessential perverse result.