7. Unintended Consequences – the Cobra Effect

A Classic Example of an Unintended Consequence

An unintended consequence is where a solution that has been brought to bear makes matters worse rather than better. It is often caused by people considering the issue to be relatively simple to fix.

In colonial India, the British considered a proliferation of cobras as an issue that the Indian society needed to resolve. To cut the number of cobras, the local government placed a bounty on them. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution. The bounty was generous enough that many people took up cobra hunting, achieving the desired outcome: a decrease in the cobra population.

However, as the cobra population fell and it became harder to find cobras in the wild, people became rather entrepreneurial: They started breeding cobras in their homes, which they would kill and present to the authorities in order to collect the bounty. When the authorities realized what was going on, they cancelled the bounty triggering the Indian people to release their now-valueless cobras back into the streets. In the end, Delhi had a bigger cobra problem after the bounty ended than it had before it began. The unintended consequence of the cobra eradication plan was an increase in cobras in the streets. 

This case has become the exemplar of the unintended consequences of an attempt to solve a problem without considering the complexity of the environment – exacerbating the very problem that rule-makers intended to fix.

When address the SDGs, harmonious entrepreneurs and value creators should consider the whole rather than focusing on a quick fix. People tend to think in terms of simple cause and effect, when presented with an issue, to begin to break the problem into smaller subcomponents that are considered simple enough to resolve. Of course, this analytical thinking is not wrong, but it tends to forget that any action has a reaction. Unchecked, these reactions can interact with the solution to create an emergent behaviour that was far from original intentions. Learn more about the importance of ‘systems thinking’ in the next lesson.

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