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See also Biological curiosities.


The subpages under this page describe unintended consequences. An unintended consequence occurs when an unexpected and unintended use is made of a mechanism or formalism—such as a law, a rule, a regulation, or even a custom or an accepted ethical or moral precept—that has been established in the world. Presumably the mechanism or formalism was established with the intent of achieving some particular positive result or reducing or eliminating something that is considered negative. The unintended consequence is almost always different from that end and in many cases may be contrary to it.

The establishment of a mechanism can lead to an unintended consequence in a number of ways.

  • Exploitation. The mechanism is used (exploited, gamed) to achieve some result which was neither intended nor anticipated when the mechanism was established. (Example: throwing a deliberately incomplete pass or stepping out of bounds to stop the clock in football.)
  • Avoidance. Because the mechanism exists, people act in ways that they might not otherwise have acted were the mechanism not in existence. (Example: tax avoidance strategies.)
  • Culture shift. Because the mechanism has been built into society as a cultural expectation, people come to expect things that they might not otherwise expect. (Example: changed expectations. See, for example, Universities allowed to hold the patents on federally funded research.)


Historical contingencies vs. unintended consequences

It is becoming clear to me that it will be very difficult to distinguish between the unintended consequences of the installation of a mechanism in the world and history in general. History is, after all, the contingent sequence of events that occur, generally as at least in part consequence of preceding events.

For example, is the war in Iraq a consequence of the fact that Supreme Court found that Bush should be elected president in 2000? Probably. But that suggests that the term consequence is the wrong term for this museum. What we have in mind for this collection are mechanisms that once installed in the world are used to achieve some end—which was not anticipated and may be contrary to the intended outcome of installing the mechanism in the first place.

When the Supreme Court decided that Bush should be President it did not install a new mechanism in the world; it just installed a President. But some President would have been installed no matter what the Supreme Court did. So even though the war in Iraq may be seen as a consequence or result of that Supreme Court decision, is it not an unintended consequence in the sense intended here.

On the other hand, the existence of SAT coaching services is an unintended consequence of the creation of the SAT. Even though the services don't themselves manipulate the SAT for their own direct gain, they help people do that. So the creation of the SAT and similar tests invites the manipulation of those tests, which in turn invites the creation of businesses, which help people do that manipulation. (Although, see Teaching to the test.)

The Unintended Consequence page of Fractals of Change lists a number of unintended consequences in the more general sense discussed above, which I would not include in this museum. A great many more can be found with a Google search for "unintended consequences".

Email spam is an interesting case. Is that an unintended consequence of the existence of email? It certainly can be said to be. But isn't it also just a historical contingency? That is, email was created. It turned out to be a much less expensive way to deliver messages. The advertising industry took advantage of this new technology to deliver their messages. That's the way technology and all new developments work. Once they are let loose in the world, the world uses them in all sorts of creative ways. In this case, we have what we on this page are focusing on, i.e., a new mechanism installed in the world. And we are looking for ways in which they is used in what might be considered inappropriate ways. Well spam is certainly a good example. of that. It's not just that spam depends for its existence on email (as deaths by automobile accidents depend on the automobile), it's that spam uses the mechanism directly.

Rob Norton's essay on unintended consequences takes a broader view of the term. Norton refers to work done by Robert K. Merton.

The first and most complete analysis of the concept of unintended consequences was done in 1936 by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton. In an influential article titled "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action," Merton identified five sources of unanticipated consequences. The first two—and the most pervasive—were ignorance and error.

Merton labeled the third source the "imperious immediacy of interest." By that he was referring to instances in which an individual wants the intended consequence of an action so much that he purposefully chooses to ignore any unintended effects. (That type of willful ignorance is very different from true ignorance.) A nation, for example, might ban abortion on moral grounds even though children born as a result of the policy may be unwanted and likely to be more dependent on the state. The unwanted children are an unintended consequence of banning abortions, but not an unforeseen one.

"Basic values" was Merton's fourth example. The Protestant ethic of hard work and asceticism, he wrote, "paradoxically leads to its own decline through the accumulation of wealth and possessions." His final case was the "self-defeating prediction." Here he was referring to the instances when the public prediction of a social development proves false precisely because the prediction changes the course of history. For example, the warnings earlier in this century that population growth would lead to mass starvation helped spur scientific breakthroughs in agricultural productivity that have since made it unlikely that the gloomy prophecy will come true.

Do we want to think of the following as an unintended consequence or as a simple historical contingency?

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost
For want of a horse, a rider was lost
For want of a rider, a message was lost
For want of a message, a battle was lost
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost
All for want of a nail
- George Herbert (1593-1632)

Quoted and attributed on Thoughts on alternate history. 

Since the lack of a nail (according to the original story) was unintended, the preceding chain of events was the result of ignorance or error. It fits Merton's first or second category. But I prefer to think of the preceding as an historical contingency and to limit the term unintended consequence to the exploitation of an installed mechanism to produce results other than those for which it was intended.

Adaptations vs. effects

A nice way to distinguish between historical contingencies and unintended consequences in the sense intended here is to ask whether the consequence in question is a direct effect of the triggering event or is a result of an adaptation to a triggering event which has resulted in a change in the environment.

  • If the phenomenon in question was simply an effect caused by a triggering event, it is a historical contingency.
  • If the phenomenon in question is a result of an adaptation to a change in the environment caused by the triggering event, it is an unintended consequence. What was unintended was the adaptation that led to the behavior that produced the consequence. In other words, when a mechanism was installed in the environment (the triggering event), other elements in the environment may change their behavior as an adaptation to the new mechanism. The changed behavior may then result in or be seen as an unintended consequence of the change in the environment.

See a number of blog entries on David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone for a discussion of adaptation from an evolutionary perspective. (The blog entries are displayed in reverse chronological order. It is probably easiest to read them from the bottom to the top.) The book itself is very worth reading. It lays out in simple terms how evolution proceeds: variation, preferential selection of some of the variants over others, a means to record (remember) (e.g., in the genes) the preferred variants.

Thus to argue that something is an unintended consequence in the sense intended here, one should be able to describe it in evolutionary terms, i.e., what varied, why were some of the varieties more successful in the changed environment, how did the successful varieties persist (i.e., how were they remembered)?

What is nice about this perspective is that it doesn't rely on teleological reasoning. It doesn't require that an agent think through why some action should be more effective. Like all of evolutionary thinking, all that is required is that some behavior be more effective — and that a means is available to reproduce that behavior once it occurs.

The bottom line is that unintended consequences are bottom line phenomenon. An unintended consequence occurs when

  1. the environment is modified so that a new way of obtaining resources — mainly energy, which in our economy means money — is created and
  2. some entities that depend on or need that resource/energy modifies how they normally obtain that resource to make use of this new way to obtain it.

All other events — no matter how much they change the world and no matter how unexpected those changes turn out to be — are not classified as unintended consequences.

Entering an Unintended Consequence

Follow these steps to enter a new unintended consequences entry.

  1. Log onto the wiki. To log on, click logon at the top of the page.
  2. Edit the Catalog section below. (Click [edit] to the right of the Catalog heading.)
  3. On a new line add an entry of the following form.
    * [[/Your consequence/]]
    Don't forget all the special wiki characters: the asterisk, the left and right square brackets, and the two forward slash characters. (The two forward slash characters make your page a subpage of this page.) The name of your consequence should appear between the forward slashes. Follow the example of the other entries. The easiest way to create a new entry is to duplicate an existing entry and replace the old consequence name with the name of your new consequence.
  4. Save the page. This will create a new entry in the list of entries. It will show up in red.
  5. Click the red link that you just created. That will take you to the edit page for your consequence.
  6. Describe your consequence. If you want your name to appear, enter four tilde characters (~~~~) at the end of the page.
  7. Save the page. Your consequence will be saved as a subpage of this page. A link back to this page will appear on the line below the title of your new page.