Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dynamic Action vs Unintended Consequences:Part I

Unintended consequences are outcomes that are not (or not limited to) the results originally intended in a particular situation. The unintended results may be foreseen or unforeseen, but they should be the logical or likely results of the action. For example, historians have speculated that if the Treaty of Versailles had not imposed such harsh conditions on Germany, World War II would not have occurred. From this perspective, one might consider the war an unintended consequence of the treaty.

Unintended consequences can be grouped into roughly three types:

Discussions of unintended consequences usually refer to the situation of perverse results. This situation can arise when a policy has a perverse incentive and causes actions contrary to what is desired.

The law of unintended consequences

The "law of unintended consequences" (also called the "law of unforeseen consequences") states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences. A classic example is a bypass — a road built to relieve traffic congestion on a congested road — that attracts new development and with it more traffic, resulting in two congested streets instead of one.

This maxim is not a scientific law; it is more in line with Murphy's law as a warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them. Stated in other words, each cause has more than one effect, and these effects will invariably include at least one unforeseen side effect. The unintended side effect can potentially be more significant than any of the intended effects.


The idea of unintended consequences dates back at least to Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and consequentialism (judging by results). However, it was the sociologist Robert K. Merton who popularized this concept in the twentieth century.

In his 1936 paper, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action", Merton tried to apply a systematic analysis to the problem of "unanticipated consequences" of "purposive social action". 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".[1] Merton also stated that "no blanket statement categorically affirming or denying the practical feasibility of all social planning is warranted."[2]


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 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:[3]

  1. Ignorance (It is impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis)
  2. Error (Incorrect analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation)
  3. Immediate interest, which may override long-term interests
  4. Basic values 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 (Fear of some consequence drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is unanticipated)
We will attempt to explore over the next few posts how our concept of "Dynamic Action (or Dynamic Planning, Dynamic Legislation etc)" may potentially serve as a hedge against the unintended consequences of what appears to be the "correct" decision at a particular moment in time.

No comments: