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Unintended consequences


Unintended consequences

An erosion gully in Australia caused by rabbits. The release of rabbits in Australia for hunting purposes has had serious unintended ecological consequences.

In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences , unforeseen consequences, or accidents) are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action. The term was popularised in the twentieth century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.[1]

Unintended consequences can be grouped into three types:

  • Unexpected benefit: A positive, unexpected benefit (also referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall).
  • Unexpected drawback: A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).
  • Perverse result: A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse). This is sometimes referred to as 'backfire'.


  • History 1
  • Causes 2
  • Examples 3
    • Unexpected benefits 3.1
    • Unexpected drawbacks 3.2
    • Perverse results 3.3
  • Unintended consequences of environmental intervention 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7


The idea of unintended consequences or accidents dates back at least to John Locke who discussed the unintended consequences of interest rate regulation in his letter to Sir John Somers, Member of Parliament.[2] The idea was also discussed by Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and consequentialism (judging by results).[3] However, it was the sociologist Robert K. Merton who popularized this concept in the twentieth century.[1][4][5][6]

In his 1936 paper, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action", Merton tried to apply a systematic analysis to the problem of unintended consequences of deliberate acts intended to cause social change. He emphasized that his term "purposive action... [is exclusively] concerned with 'conduct' as distinct from 'behavior.' That is, with action that involves motives and consequently a choice between various alternatives".[6] Merton also stated that "no blanket statement categorically affirming or denying the practical feasibility of all social planning is warranted."[7]

More recently, the law of unintended consequences has come to be used as an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.[8][9][10][11] Akin to Murphy's law, it is commonly used as a wry or humorous warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them.


Possible causes of unintended consequences include the world's inherent complexity (parts of a system responding to changes in the environment), perverse incentives, human stupidity, self-deception, failure to account for human nature, or other cognitive or emotional biases. As a sub-component of complexity (in the scientific sense), the chaotic nature of the universe—and especially its quality of having small, apparently insignificant changes with far-reaching effects (e.g., the butterfly effect)—applies.

Robert K. Merton listed five possible causes of unanticipated consequences in 1936:[12]

  1. Ignorance, making it impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis
  2. Errors in analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation
  3. Immediate interests overriding long-term interests
  4. Basic values which may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable (these long-term consequences may eventually cause changes in basic values)
  5. Self-defeating prophecy, or, the fear of some consequence which drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is not anticipated


Unexpected benefits

  • The medieval policy of setting up large hunting reserves for the nobility has preserved green space, often as parks, throughout England and other places in Europe. Likewise the creation of "no-man's lands" during the Cold War, in places such as the border between Eastern and Western Europe, and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, has led to large natural habitats.[13][14][15]
  • The sinking of ships in shallow waters during wartime has created many artificial coral reefs, which can be scientifically valuable and have become an attraction for recreational divers.[16][17][18][19][20]
  • In medicine, most drugs have unintended consequences ('side effects') associated with their use. However, some are beneficial. For instance, aspirin, a pain reliever, is also an anticoagulant that can help prevent heart attacks and reduce the severity and damage from thrombotic strokes.[21] The existence of beneficial side effects also leads to off-label use—prescription or use of a drug for an unlicensed purpose.

Unexpected drawbacks

  • The implementation of a profanity filter by AOL in 1996 had the unintended consequence of blocking residents of Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, England from creating accounts due to a false positive.[22] The accidental censorship of innocent language, known as the Scunthorpe problem, has been repeated and widely documented.[23][24][25]
  • In 1990, the Australian state of Victoria made safety helmets mandatory for all bicycle riders. While there was a reduction in the number of head injuries, there was also an unintended reduction in the number of juvenile cyclists—fewer cyclists obviously leads to fewer injuries, assuming all else being equal. The risk of death and serious injury per cyclist seems to have increased, possibly due to risk compensation.[26] Research by Vulcan, et al. found that the reduction in juvenile cyclists was because the youths considered wearing a bicycle helmet unfashionable.[27] A health benefit model developed at Macquarie University in Sydney suggests that, while helmet use reduces "the risk of head or brain injury by approximately two-thirds or more", the decrease in exercise caused by reduced cycling as a result of helmets laws is counterproductive in terms of net health.[28]
  • War on Drugs, intended to suppress the illegal drug trade, instead increased the power and profitability of drug cartels who became the primary source of the products.[29][30][31][32] The state's claims that drug prohibition improves the lives of addicts and prevents overdose deaths caused by dangerous drugs are also contested, because overdose deaths are primarily due to inaccurate dosage labeling, the fluctuation of drug concentrations seen in erratic and shifting black market drug supplies, and poor education about the effects of drug-mixing, all of which are caused by "drug prohibition" not informed drug use.[33] In addition to the prior causes of heroin overdose, when addicts are treated as criminals police know that methods of overdose can lead them to potential arrestees, so the availability of opiate antidotes (Naloxone) are restricted below natural market distribution. One aspect of this is awareness that police can monitor Narcan supplies in search of addicts, as they market indoor-growing supply stores in suspicion of those buying supplies necessary to grow marijuana (Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa),[34] coca plants (Erythroxylum coca), opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), psychedelic cacti (Lophophora williamsii, Trichocereus pachanoi), psychedelic mushrooms (Psilocybe cubensis, Psilocybe cyanescens, Gymnopilus spectabilis, etc.).
  • In CIA jargon, "blowback" describes the unintended, undesirable consequences of covert operations, such as the funding of the Afghan Mujahideen and the destabilization of Afghanistan contributing to the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.[35][36][37]
  • The introduction of exotic animals and plants for food, for decorative purposes, or to control unwanted species often leads to more harm than good done by the introduced species.
    • The introduction of rabbits in Australia and New Zealand for food was followed by an explosive growth in the rabbit population; rabbits have become a major feral pest in these countries.[38][39]
    • Cane toads, introduced into Australia to control canefield pests, were unsuccessful and have become a major pest in their own right.
    • Kudzu, introduced to the US as an ornamental plant in 1876[40] and later used to prevent erosion in earthworks, has become a major problem in the Southeastern United States. Kudzu has displaced native plants, and has effectively taken over significant portions of land.[41][42]
  • The protection of the steel industry in the United States reduced production of steel in the United States, increased costs to users, and increased unemployment in associated industries.[43][44]

Perverse results

  • In 2003, Barbra Streisand unsuccessfully sued Kenneth Adelman and for posting a photograph of her home online.[45] Before the lawsuit had been filed, only 6 people had downloaded the file, two of them Streisand's attorneys.[46] The lawsuit drew attention to the image, resulting in 420,000 people visiting the site.[47] The Streisand effect was named after this incident, describing when an attempt to censor or remove a certain piece of information instead draws attention to the material being suppressed, resulting in the material instead becoming widely known, reported on, and distributed.[48]
  • Passenger-side [49]
  • Risk compensation, or the Peltzman effect, occurs after implementation of safety measures intended to reduce injury or death (e.g. bike helmets, seatbelts, etc.). People may feel safer than they really are and take additional risks which they would not have taken without the safety measures in place. This may result in no change, or even an increase, in morbidity or mortality, rather than a decrease as intended.
  • The British government, concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi, offered a bounty for every dead cobra. This was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward, but eventually enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse. (Cobra effect)
  • Theobald Mathew's temperance campaign in 19th-century Ireland (in which thousands of people vowed never to drink alcohol again) led to the consumption of diethyl ether, an intoxicant much more dangerous due to its high flammability, by those seeking to become intoxicated without breaking the letter of their pledge.[50]
  • It was thought that adding south-facing conservatories to British houses would reduce energy consumption by providing extra insulation and warmth from the sun. However, people tended to use the conservatories as living areas, installing heating and ultimately increasing overall energy consumption.[51]
  • A reward for lost nets found along the Normandy coast, offered by the French government between 1980 and 1981, resulted in people vandalizing nets to collect the reward.[52]
  • Beginning in the 1940's and continuing into the 1960's, the Federal Canadian government gave $2.25 per day, per psychiatric patient to the Catholic church in Quebec for their cost of care, and only $0.75 a day per orphan. The perverse result is that the orphan children were diagnosed mentally ill so the church could receive the larger amount of money. This psychiatric misdiagnosis affected up to 20,000 people, the children are known as the Duplessis Orphans.[53][54][55]
  • Abstinence-only sex education has been shown to increase teenage pregnancy rates, rather than reduce them, when compared to either comprehensive sex education or no sex education at all.[56]

Unintended consequences of environmental intervention

Most modern technologies have negative consequences that are both unavoidable and unpredictable. For example, almost all environmental problems, from chemical pollution to global warming, are the unexpected consequences of the application of modern technologies. Traffic congestion, deaths and injuries from car accidents, air pollution, and even global warming are unintended consequences of the invention and large scale adoption of the automobile. Hospital infections are the unexpected side-effect of antibiotic resistance, and even human overpopulation is the side-effect of various technological (i.e., agricultural and industrial) revolutions.[57]

Because of the complexity of ecosystems, deliberate changes to an ecosystem or other environmental interventions will often have (usually negative) unintended consequences. Sometimes, these effects cause permanent irreversible changes. Examples include:

  • During the Four Pests Campaign a killing of sparrows was declared. Chinese leaders later realized that sparrows ate a large amount of insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased.[58]
  • During the Great Plague of London a killing of dogs and cats was declared. The animals could have helped keep in check the rat population carrying the fleas which transmitted the disease.[59]
  • The draining of American wetlands since colonial times, resulting in flash-flooding and seasonal droughts.
  • The installation of smokestacks to decrease pollution in local areas, resulting in spread of pollution at a higher altitude, and acid rain on an international scale.[60][61]
  • After about 1900, public demand led the federal government to fight forest fires in the American West, and set aside land as national forests and parks to protect them from fires. This policy led to fewer fires, but also led to growth conditions such that, when fires did occur, they were much larger and more damaging. Modern research suggests that this policy was misguided, and that a certain level of wildfires is a natural and important part of forest ecology.[62]

See also


  1. ^ a b Robert K. Merton, Versatile Sociologist and Father of the Focus Group, Dies at 92, Michael T. Kaufman, The New York Times
  2. ^ Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising the Value of Money, available at
  3. ^ Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments p. 93.
  4. ^ Renowned Columbia Sociologist and National Medal of Science Winner Robert K. Merton Dies at 92 Columbia News
  5. ^ Robert K. Merton Remembered Footnotes, American Sociological Association
  6. ^ a b Merton, Robert K. "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action" (PDF). American Sociological Review 1 (6): 895.  
  7. ^ Merton, Robert K. "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action" (PDF). American Sociological Review 1 (6): 904.  
  8. ^ Norton, Rob (2008). "Unintended Consequences". In  
  9. ^ "HeinOnline". HeinOnline. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  10. ^ "28 Florida State University Law Review 2000-2001 Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Exemplifying the Law of Unintended Consequences Comment". 1993-06-18. Retrieved 2012-11-21. 
  11. ^ "HeinOnline". HeinOnline. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  12. ^ Merton, Robert K (1996). "On Social Structure and Science".  
  13. ^ "From Iron Curtain to Green Belt: How new life came to the death strip". London: 2009-05-17. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  14. ^ Kate Connolly (2009-07-04). "From Iron Curtain to Green Belt". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  15. ^ "European Green Belt". European Green Belt. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  16. ^ "Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative Celebrates 1 Year Anniversary". 2008-02-07. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  17. ^ "Sinking ships will boost tourism, group says – News –". MSNBC. 2007-05-25. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  18. ^ "Life after death on the ocean floor – The National Newspaper". 2009-09-21. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  19. ^ "Sea Life Flourishing On Vandenberg Wreck Off Keys". 2009-10-15. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  20. ^ "CDNN :: Diver Wants to Sink Old Navy Ships off California Coast". 2006-12-27. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  21. ^ "Aspirin heart warning"BBC 15 February 2001, . BBC News. 2001-02-15. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  22. ^ Clive Feather (25 April 1996). Peter G. Neumann, ed. "AOL censors British town's name!". ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy. 
  23. ^ Cockburn, Craig (9 March 2010). "BBC fail – my correct name is not permitted". Retrieved 24 February 2011. 
  24. ^ Moore, Matthew (2 September 2008). "The Clbuttic Mistake: When obscenity filters go wrong". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 4 April 2010. 
  25. ^ "F-Word Town's Name Gets Censored By Internet Filter". Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  26. ^ "Evaluating Head Injuries and Helmet Laws in Australia and New Zealand". 
  27. ^ Cameron, M; Cameron, M., Vulcan, A., Finch, C, and Newstead, S (June 1994). "Mandatory bicycle helmet use following a decade of helmet promotion in Victoria, Australia—an evaluation". Accident Analysis and Prevention 26 (3): 325–327.  
  28. ^ "Evaluating the Health Benefit of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws, Piet De Jong, Macquarie University – Actuarial Studies, 26 October 2009".  
  29. ^ Juan Forero, "Colombia's Coca Survives U.S. plan to uproot it", The New York Times, August 19, 2006
  30. ^ Don Podesta and Douglas Farah, "Drug Policy in Andes Called Failure," Washington Post, March 27, 1993
  31. ^ Dominic Streatfeild (June 2000). : Interview between Milton Friedman and Dominic Streatfeild"Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography"Source Material for . Dominicstratfeild. Retrieved 2012-11-21. 
  32. ^ "An open letter". Prohibition Costs. Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
  33. ^ Stanton Peele. The Persistent, Dangerous Myth of Heroin Overdose," by Stanton Peele""". 
  34. ^ Family raided by SWAT because cops found discarded tea leaves in trash
  35. ^ Bin Laden comes home to roost at the Wayback Machine (archived December 2, 1998)
  36. ^ "Blowback – 96.05". Retrieved 2012-11-21. 
  37. ^ Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor. "Why 'blowback' is the hidden danger of war | World news". The Observer. Retrieved 2012-11-21. 
  38. ^ "The State Barrier Fence of Western Australia". The State Barrier Fence Project. Retrieved 2009-10-09. 
  39. ^ "Rabbits: Introduction into New Zealand". Christchurch City Libraries. Retrieved 2009-10-09. 
  40. ^ Smithsonian MagazineKudzu: Love It or Run
  41. ^ Molly McElroy (2005). "Fast-growing kudzu making inroads in Illinois, authorities warn". News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved April 28, 2008. 
  42. ^ Richard J. Blaustein (2001). "Kudzu's invasion into Southern United States life and culture" (PDF). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved August 20, 2007. 
  43. ^  
  44. ^ Francois, Dr. Joseph; Baughman, Laura M. (February 4, 2003). "The Unintended Consequences of U.S. Steel Import Tariffs: A Quantification of the Impact During 2002" ( 
  45. ^ "The perils of the Streisand effect". BBC News. Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  46. ^ Tentative ruling, page 6, stating, "Image 3850 was download six times, twice to the Internet address of counsel for plaintiff". In addition, two prints of the picture were ordered — one by Streisand's counsel and one by Streisand's neighbor.
  47. ^ Rogers, Paul (2003-06-24). "Photo of Streisand home becomes an Internet hit".  
  48. ^ Canton, David. "Today's Business Law: Attempt to suppress can backfire", London Free Press, November 5, 2005. Retrieved July 21, 2007. The "Streisand effect" is what happens when someone tries to suppress something and the opposite occurs. The act of suppressing it raises the profile, making it much more well known than it ever would have been".
  49. ^ Worland/Ridgefield, Justin (2014-09-02). "Who's To Blame For Hot Car Deaths?". Time. 
  50. ^ "Etheromaniac". World Wide Words. 2006-09-09. Retrieved 2012-11-21. 
  51. ^ "Our innate ability to think of new ways to use energy" Professor Tadj Oreszczyn. Summer 2009 edition of ‘palette’, UCL’s journal of sustainable cities.
  52. ^ Andres, Von Brandt (1984) Fish catching methods of the world ISBN 978-0-685-63409-7.
  53. ^ "The Spokesman-Review - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  54. ^ "Sarasota Herald-Tribune - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  55. ^ "The Prescott Courier - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  56. ^ Kohler, Pamela; Manhart, Lisa; Lafferty, William (April 2008). "Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy". Journal of Adolescent Health 42 (4): 344–351.  
  57. ^ *Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann (2011).Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, Chapter 1, “The Inherent Unavoidability and Unpredictability of Unintended Consequences”, and Chapter 2, "Some Unintended Consequences of Modern Technology," New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, ISBN 0865717044, 464 pp.
  58. ^ Dikotter, Frank (2010). Mao's Great Famine. New York: Walker & Co. p. 188. 
  59. ^ Moote, Lloyd and Dorothy: The Great Plague: the Story of London's most Deadly Year, Baltimore, 2004. p. 115.
  60. ^ Likens, G. E.; Wright, R. F.; Galloway, J. N.; Butler, T. J. (1979). "Acid rain". Sci. Amer. 241 (4): 43–51.  
  61. ^ Likens, G. E. (1984). "Acid rain: the smokestack is the "smoking gun". Garden 8 (4): 12–18. 
  62. ^ Joyce, Christopher. "How The Smokey Bear Effect Led To Raging Wildfires". Retrieved 27 August 2012. 


  • Abuse proof prescription-painkillers may spur heroin habit
  • The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action by Robert K. Merton, American Sociological Review, Vol 1 Issue 6, Dec 1936, pp. 894–904
  • Unintended Consequences entry in Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
  • Museum of Unintended Consequences
  • Unintended Consequences of Green Technologies
  • Mica Adriana, Peisert Arkadiusz, Winczorek Jan (eds), (2011), Sociology and the Unintended. Robert Merton Revisited, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main.
  • Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann (2011). Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, Chapter 1, “The Inherent Unavoidability and Unpredictability of Unintended Consequences”, Chapter 2, “Some Unintended Consequences of Modern Technology”, and Chapter 4, “In Search of Solutions I: Counter-Technologies and Social Fixes”, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, ISBN 0865717044, 464 pp.
  • Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Vantage Books, 1997.
  • Tomislav V. Kovandzic, John Sloan III, and Lynne M. Vieraitis. Unintended Consequences of Politically Popular Sentencing Policy: The Homicide-Promoting Effects of 'Three Strikes' in U.S. Cities (1980–1999). Criminology & Public Policy Vol 1, Issue 3, July 2002.
  • Vulcan, A.P., Cameron, M.H. & Heiman, L., "Evaluation of mandatory bicycle helmet use in Victoria, Australia", 36th Annual Conference Proceedings, Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, October 5–7, 1992.
  • Vulcan, A.P., Cameron, M.H. & Watson, W.L., "Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Use: Experience in Victoria, Australia", World Journal of Surgery, Vol. 16, No.3, (May/June 1992), pp. 389–397.
  • "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use"
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