the Long of it ........

unintended consequences and other musings

Unintended Consequences, Observations

A bit of my Research on Unintended Consequences:



I am a news and political junkie – I love reading about various decisions that both the private and public domain have made and what unintended consequences potentially occur. I have always been intrigued with the entire process of making a decision; what inspires it, what data was used, how personal biases influence, how much time it takes and especially the eventual effects of it.

While reading from various sources, I kept coming across the term; “unintended consequences”.   The primary usage was in two areas; what unintended consequences occurred because of a past decision or what potential ones may exist if a planned decision is approved. I started looking for resource material covering the general subject of unintended consequences and found only very focused material.


Definition of Unintended Consequences:

In the social sciences, unintended consequences (UC) are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action. Note that the definition does not say that the unintended consequences are negative, they can also be positive (though these seem to be much rarer in my analysis).  The term was popularized in the twentieth century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

Part of Speech: adjective
Definition: unintentional
Synonyms: accidental, aimless, casual, chance, erratic, extemporaneous, fortuitous, haphazard, inadvertent, involuntary, purposeless, random, unconscious, undesigned, undevised, unexpected, unforeseen, unmeant, unplanned, unpremeditated, unthinking, unthought, unwitting
Part of Speech: noun
Definition: result, outcome of action
Synonyms: aftereffect, aftermath, bottom line, can of worms, chain reaction, effect, end, event, fallout, follow through, follow-up, issue, outgrowth, payback, reaction, repercussion, sequel, sequence, spin-off, upshot, waves


Reasons for Unintended Consequences:

Major reasons for unintended consequences include:

  • failure to appreciate the complexity of the issues
  • the open-ended nature of advances
  • the inducement of change in behaviors in response to legislation
  • the moral hazard of people spending other people’s money
  • short decision time
  • decision makers relatively short time in role creates need for short term results with long term results occurring after person is out of position and thus does not suffer consequences themselves.
  • lack of humility

American sociologist Robert K. Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” Merton identified five sources of unanticipated consequences:

  1. ignorance
  2. error
  3. imperious immediacy of interest
  4. Basic values
  5. self-defeating prediction


Avoiding Unintended Consequences:

Actions that should be considered to avoid unintended consequences include more involvement of industry professionals and consumers in the design of legislation, the inclusion of triggers to target review of legislatively defined programs, and the setting of time limits for sun-setting legislation.

Sociologist Robert K. Merton popularized the “Law of Unintended Consequences.”  In his 1936 work on the subject, one category he identified was “immediate interest which neglects consideration of the longer term”

It is much simpler though, in many cases it is simply getting a group of people to consider ‘what if’s’ on a white board and brainstorm/develop tactics for dealing with them.   Some simple questions:

  • What will happen when you take a lot of corn intended for food production and divert some for fuel?
  • What will happen when you junk perfectly good running cars and prevent their parts from being reused?
  • What will happen when you apply large consumer tax rebates to items like electric cars, solar panels and new appliances?

Brainstorming using Mind Map tools can help here.  The older Quality tools including process mapping and fishbone diagrams may also prove useful.


Sources of Unintended Consequences:

In collecting my stories on unintended consequences, I was often analyzing to see where most cases of unintended consequences come from; private industry or government.  Most stories seem to originate in government and this may make sense considering the major reasons for unintended consequences listed above.  It also may be that private companies are able to keep their stories much quieter and out of the public domain.  Some still get leaked and we have stories such as Chevrolet releasing the Nova in Mexico before realizing that Nova means ‘not going’ in Spanish.


People on Consequences

After realizing that we would eventually be able to build molecular machines that could arrange atoms to form virtually any pattern that we wanted, I saw that an awful lot of consequences followed from that.
K. Eric Drexler

All around us are the consequences of the most significant technological and hence cultural, revolution in generations.
Lawrence Lessig

A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences.
Norman Cousins

All human sin seems so much worse in its consequences than in its intentions.
Reinhold Niebuhr

Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities.
Winston Churchill

America traditionally represents the greatest possibility of someone’s going from nothing to something. Why? In theory, if not practice, the government stays out of the way and lets individuals take risks and reap rewards or accept the consequences of failure. We call this capitalism – or, at least, we used to.
Larry Elder

Every friend to the liberty of his country is bound to reflect, and step forward to prevent the dreadful consequences which shall result from a government of events.
Henry Knox

Every person has free choice. Free to obey or disobey the Natural Laws. Your choice determines the consequences. Nobody ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his choices.
Alfred A. Montapert

Here we stand in the middle of this new world with our primitive brain, attuned to the simple cave life, with terrific forces at our disposal, which we are clever enough to release, but whose consequences we cannot comprehend.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

I am not a politician… I only suffer the consequences.
Peter Tosh

If a man will make a purchase of a chance he must abide by the consequences.
Richard Richards

It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.
Josiah Stamp

Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.
Bruce Barton

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
Robert Louis Stevenson

Be careful what you wish for; you may get it.

Don’t fall for fantastical notions that have nothing to do with the way people really are.
Irving Kristol

He who is punished is never he who performed the deed.

Clearly there are always unintended consequences of any legislative or regulatory act that’s taken in the heat of battle.
Richard Grasso

Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.
Thomas Huxley

Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.
Norman Cousins

I am not a politician… I only suffer the consequences.
Peter Tosh

The consequences of things are not always proportionate to the apparent magnitude of those events that have produced them. Thus the American Revolution, from which little was expected, produced much; but the French Revolution, from which much was expected, produced little.
Charles Caleb Colton

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
Frederic Bastiat

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.
Margaret J. Wheatley

It is often said that mankind needs a faith if the world is to be improved. In fact, unless the faith is vigilantly and regularly checked by a sense of man’s fallibility, it is likely to make the world worse. From Torquemada to Robespierre and Hitler the men who have made mankind suffer the most have been inspired to do so have been inspired to do so by a strong faith; so strong that it led them to think their crimes were acts of virtue necessary to help them achieve their aim, which was to build some sort of an ideal kingdom on earth.
David Cecil

Oh, the unintended consequences of perfidy!
Andrew Levkoff

Thy designs are a bottomless pit. How can I descend into this pit to examine it? Thou lookest thousands of years into the future and then Thou judgest. What today seems an injustice to man’s minute brain becomes, thousands of years hence, the mother of man’s salvation. If what today we term injustice did not exist, perhaps true justice would never come to mankind.” Thy designs are a bottomless pit. How can I descend into this pit to examine it? Thou lookest thousands of years into the future and then Thou judgest. What today seems an injustice to man’s minute brain becomes, thousands of years hence, the mother of man’s salvation. If what today we term injustice did not exist, perhaps true justice would never come to mankind.” “Thy designs are a bottomless pit. How can I descend into this pit to examine it? Thou lookest thousands of years into the future and then Thou judgest. What today seems an injustice to man’s minute brain becomes, thousands of years hence, the mother of man’s salvation. If what today we term injustice did not exist, perhaps true justice would never come to mankind.
Nikos Kazantzakis

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…  the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.  If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
Albert Einstein

If you know the unintended consequences of your acts, you are in a better position to analyze the facts.
Tasneem Hameed

One of the hardest things to teach a child is that the truth is more important than the consequences.
O. A. Battista

I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I never looked at the consequences of missing a big shot . . . when you think about the consequences you always think of a negative result.
Michael Jordan

While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.
Stephen R. Covey

Motives and purposes are in the brain and heart of man. Consequences are in the world of fact.
Henry Geaye

We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.
Ayn Rand

Idleness is sweet, and its consequences are cruel.
John Quincy Adams

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