Superfreakonomics Lesson #2: The Law of Unintended Consequences


Yes, when we are mountain biking we try not to use the right hand brake…

Super Freakonomics Lesson #2: The Law of unintended consequences.

The  law of unintended consequences refers to actions that result in affects and impacts that are unanticipated and or unintended. Put simply the law of unintended consequence is a principle of action. It appears that every action, decision has unintended consequences, some good, some not so good. Every action has both seen and unseen consequences, obvious and not so obvious affects, positive and negative, short and longterm affects.

Humans are both aware and  oblivious.  And reality is quite an emergence of complex patterns and interrelationships.  Anytime you or I take an action, make a decision, legislate and lead there's bound to be unintended consequences, question is did we consider the unintended consequence as well as the intended?

How many times, I wonder have I been seduced by what is seen, by the immediate reaction, the obvious only to totally miss, be oblivious or worse yet unconscious to the far reaching, long term, unseen consequences?

The treaty of Versailles did it humiliate Germany into World War 2? The legislation resulting from the Exxon Valdez spill, did it increase the likelihood of additional oil spills and reduce the likelihood of damages being paid? What were the unintended consequences of import quota's? Do the laws restricting drugs have unseen consequences and what about the civil rights laws, the American Disabilities Act; what were the unintended consequences of each of these?

 Seems as if history is full of examples of us humans pursuing short term solutions oblivious to the long term consequences.

Don't get me wrong, unintended consequences aren't always negative, sometimes they are positive. Aspirin has a positive unintended consequence of being an anticoagulant. On the other hand, Prohibition had a negative unintended consequence of consolidating organized crimes hold over society, just as the war on drugs has helped consolidate the drug cartels power.

So as I sit here musing over the law of unintended consequences I find a plethora of historical and  personal examples, enough to know that Levitt and Dubner are doing a much needed service when they outline the facts and figures behind case study after case study. You see, numbers don't  lie and sometimes leaders, world changers like you- and me need to be reminded behavior has consequences.

 I am wondering how often do  I do more- when I should do less?  And I'm wondering, if less isn't necessarily more; as far as leadership is concerned.

I'm also committing myself to spending more leadership time considering 'the flip side.'

 How good are you at considering the flip side of a decision, before you make it?

 If it is true that humans respond to incentives and that all behavior is motivated by either pain or pleasure and that all  behavior has both intended and unintended consequences then it probably makes sense for me to measure the cost to all parties of my decisions and behaviors.

Okay so I've been fairly unconscious as a leader, even immature.

 I understand, at least cognitively that to be abundant, to be wise, to see both the short and long term the seen and unseen the foreseeable and the invisible the obvious and the not so, that I must step back and evaluate the total costs. I must see with new eyes.

I talk alot about doing good and profiting all of humanity and society in my endeavors and the book Super Freakonomics once again reminded me of the fact that there are many forms of currency, many ways to evaluate return and profit.

  A dead loss; negative life investment for me is  negative consequences immediately and in the long term for all that I impact.  These are fairly easy decisions to steer clear of,  much more tricky are the partially negative, partially positive for differing stakeholder decisions. Ultimately as a leader I want to lead in a way that results in  a net win – win for everyone I impact. 

So that's it;  the second lesson I learned from Super Freakonomics is that one of my intent's as a leader is to steward the unintended consequences of my life- better. 

I'll need a grace pass for the last forty some years, but going forward my leadership intent is that the net consequence from my words, deeds and actions is a net win for the individuals that matter to me and to the community and to the world I live within.

You see every investment – every action you and I make, well it matters…it has consequences; some foreseeable others not so…

And your thoughts?

3 Responses to “Superfreakonomics Lesson #2: The Law of Unintended Consequences”

  1. Joe "The Connector" Kennedy

    Nice thoughts, but I don’t think you need a pass at all. Regardless it’s impossible to 100% correctly predict how someone else is going to react to decisions made by someone else.
    We don’t have the ability to control decisions made by others, but the good thing is that as humans, we have the ability to choose how to react to others’ decisions.

  2. Pam Hoelzle

    Thanks Joe. Free will. Gotta love it and it does liberate each of us as you said it; we may not be in control of what happens, but certainly the one thing we do control is our response. Thanks for engaging in the conversation.


    You and I are on the same wave length lately. Not that I’ve been thinking exactly about the law of unintended consequences, but, I certainly have been cognizant of my actions. I’m much more aware of what I say and what I do. I know that this is in front of my children as well as with my team at work. As I look to 2010 and think of ways to grow my business, I look at the amount of energy spent by me and my employees and try to see if it’s worth to pursue new services. I’m trying to be someone who looks at the big picture, the impact on my life, those that work for me, my customers and potential new customers. Thanks for expressing your thoughts and giving me more to think about.