Unintended consequences refers to yielding unexpected results. This story attempts to shed light on one of the oldest sociological and economic concepts – the law of unintended consequences.
“There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything. The most corrosive piece of technology that I’ve ever seen is called television – but then, again, television, at its best, is magnificent.”
― Steve Jobs
The law of unintended consequences is one of the most cited laws of social sciences; however, it is the least defined one. The law states that each and every purposeful act leads, most definitely, to results, which are unintended and unforeseen, apart from those which were intended.
These unanticipated outcomes may sometimes lead to grave situations, or may be beneficial in the long run. Conceptually, the law has been existing since the remote past; however, it was named only in the 20th century.
Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist, did an in-depth study of the unanticipated consequences of social actions and stated that the intended consequences are obvious, and everybody is aware of them. But, the unintended consequences of a given intended act are often hidden. Bringing these to the forefront would need an in-depth sociological analysis.
Causes of Unintended Consequences
Unintended consequences are those effects, which are unrecognizable from the surface level. These might not be seen or felt quickly, but vital in the long run. According to sociologists, these consequences result from the inherently complex nature of the world, and the various functional systems interact with each other and respond to environmental changes.
The very foundation of the law is based on the fact that the universe is extremely dynamic and chaotic in nature, and things which may seem minuscule and insignificant with respect to the near future, might indeed have a great impact in the long run.
In one of his research papers written in 1936, Robert K. Merton listed five factors, which may give rise to unintended consequences. These include as the following.
We humans are inherently ignorant about certain things that happen around us on a regular basis. This kind of ignorance may result from the fact that we see a certain thing happening every day, and because it is always around us, we tend to ignore it.
Owing to this, we cannot foresee the impact they might have in the days to come. Moreover, according to Merton, it is next to impossible to foresee and anticipate anything from all angles. This may mean that the given thing or action was incompletely analyzed, and hence, the extra, unrecognizable effects that it had, were impossible to control.
Unintended consequences result from certain technical and/or analytic errors. Technical error pertains to incorrectly analyzing a given problem, which may not only lead to unanticipated effects, also mar those which are intended.
On the other hand, an analytic error refers to incorrect analysis of circumstances and the parameters of time and space. What might have a positive impact at a certain place, might have a completely opposite impact on the other.
Similarly, a plan that may have worked some 50 years ago, might not be of any use today, and vice versa. So, if the dimensions of time and space are not taken into consideration, possibilities of creating unintended consequences tend to increase.
Certain acts might be intended for reaping immediate results. The intender might also get what he/she had wanted.
But there is a possibility that in the whole process, certain other factors of the environment were tampered with. This act of making changes to the natural environment might be regarded vital for getting the desired results, but the effects that such changes might have, are either not seen immediately or are completely ignored.
It is also possible that the intender is so greedy to reap early profits, that despite having a knowledge about the unintended (often negative) consequences, in the long run, he might turn a blind eye towards them.
Basic values is an important factor in determining the end results of a certain purposeful act. In many instances, traditional values play a vital role. Despite knowing that a particular act will not yield favorable results in the future, more often than not, one cannot alter his/her course of action just because the value system prohibits him from doing so.
Similarly, in spite of the fact that the results might not be in one’s favor, one has to act in a particular manner, because the value system requires him/her to do so. In such cases, unintended consequences cannot be avoided. Merton also stated that sometimes, the long-term effects of certain actions may also lead to certain changes in the value system.
This is perhaps one of the most interesting causes of unintended consequences listed by Merton. He says that sometimes, people are scared of unfavorable unintended consequences of a particular act, and want to avoid them.
So, they tend to find solutions to a problem they think may occur in the future. This way, they land up finding solutions for a problem that might not be present at all.
Merton has, very aptly, brought out how human understanding (or misunderstanding) might lead to unanticipated effects. However, it should be noted that there are a number of natural processes going on all the time, and even these might contribute in the long run to cause certain things, which could not be foreseen in the past.
Types of Unintended Consequences
Unintended consequences can be broadly categorized into three types, on the basis of the kind of impact they make on the world. These include the following.
These, as the name suggests, are those unintended consequences, which are positive in nature, or which bring about a positive change in an individual and the world.
Often termed as luck, windfall, or serendipity, these are those unpredictable effects of a certain deliberate act of the past, which reap immense benefits and profits.
It is a known fact that the drug Aspirin is an analgesic or a painkiller. But, it is also an anticoagulant that prevents the clotting of blood, and thus, reduces the severity of thrombotic strokes.
The unexpected benefits, are negative in nature, and can lead to devastating effects on an individual and/or environment. These effects can be really grave in nature, and it might take great efforts to get the situation under control.
In Australia and New Zealand, rabbits were introduced to provide game for the colonial hunters, and for food. However, rapid growth in their population has become a major problem today due to the enormous threat they pose as feral pests.
Perverse effects are those effects which are completely opposite of what was originally intended. These may often make the situations worse than they already were.
The policy of rent control, adopted in major American and British cities, is intended to make housing facilities more accessible to the lower income groups. According to some economists, this policy might adversely hamper the quality of housing in the future.
Human intervention in natural processes, and the often disastrous ecological impact that it makes, is a classic example of unintended consequences. Notably enough, unintended adverse consequences can be avoided in certain circumstances. However, this is not always possible. No matter how good or beneficial the intention is, the law always persists.