On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rattled the ocean floor off the coast of Japan. It was the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded. It was so powerful, it moved Japan’s main island by 2.4 meters. It shifted the Earth’s axis by about 10 centimeters and sped up the planet’s rotation by a few microseconds.1

The damage from the earthquake and the tsunami it produced was biblical in scale. With only eight minutes of warning, waves swept as far as ten kilometers inland, killing thousands and destroying entire towns within minutes. Official estimates put the total death toll for the entire disaster at over 15,000 people.

Fukushima damage - unintended consequences

But wait, it gets worse. Authorities quickly discovered that a number of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant—one of the largest in the world—had been severely damaged. Huge quantities of radioactive material were leaking out into the surrounding areas, including into the Pacific Ocean. In the span of a single afternoon, a destructive act of nature had turned into a man-made nightmare, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the events of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986.

Up to that point, nuclear power had played an important role in Japan’s infrastructure since the 1970s, when the Fukushima power plant was first commissioned. But the events of that day in 2011 were so jarring, so traumatic, so real for the Japanese people that their government quickly agreed to shut down nearly every nuclear power facility in the country.

The events were tragic. The response was swift. But then our story takes an odd turn…

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The public demand to discontinue nuclear power within Japan was overwhelming. The Japanese government quickly promised to discontinue all 34 of its nuclear power plants and one by one, began shutting them down. By 2013, the country was free of nuclear power.

But this created another problem: how to generate the power to replace the closed down plants? Nuclear power had once provided more than 20% of the country’s electricity. Where would they get the energy?

The most expedient solution was to turn to fossil fuels. The country moved to mobilize its coal plants and build more. This disruption in power supply led to an increase in cost of electricity across the country, causing shortages in the colder winter months, especially in the far north. And, as we all know, fossil fuels bring a bevy of awful environmental side effects along with them — they create smog, destroy ecosystems, and harm people’s health.

And this is where the story gets weird. Because, amazingly, studies have since determined that the closing of the nuclear power plants in Japan has actually caused more deaths than the Fukushima accident itself.2

Call it a case of the cure being worse than the poison.

Of course, like me, you may be skeptical of this result. But it turns out it’s actually nothing new or even noteworthy. If you dig into economic literature, researchers have known this for a long time: shutting down nuclear power plants after disasters—which are few and far between—leads to more problems than it solves. The increased pollution from fossil fuels results in lower birth weights,3 millions of fatal respiratory illnesses,4 abnormal brain development,5 and not to mention, massive damage to the environment and climate change.6 And the disruption in electricity markets caused many people to go without heating during the following winter, resulting in a number of elderly people dying due to exposure to colder temperatures.

To their credit, the Japanese government has since done an about-face — since 2018 they have begun re-activating their nuclear reactors. Their goal is to have them fully online again (and upgraded) by 2030.7

But these “Cure is Worse than the Poison” problems are everywhere if you pay attention. In fact, some social scientists loosely refer to these situations as, “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” The Law of Unintended Consequences is a nebulous term applied to situations where intended fixes to a problem only serve to cause more severe problems. It’s never been defined officially. But here, let me take a stab at it:

The Law of Unintended Consequences occurs when an impulsive, emotional decision is made that unintentionally creates more problems than it solves. 

I will get into how the Law of Unintended Consequences occurs at the personal level. But its examples are most noticeable (and notorious) at the state and government level.

Exhibit A: in 1905, the US Forest Service was founded in order to prevent large-scale wildfires that had torched much of Montana and Idaho that year. The Forest Service instituted strict laws against burns across the western United States and built an infrastructure to immediately put out wildfires as soon as they started. Destruction caused by wildfires dropped significantly… for a while.

Then they became far worse. Within a couple of decades, the fires were cataclysmic, larger and more severe than anyone thought possible.

The problem, it turned out, is that a forest is a highly complex system. And a certain amount of fire is actually natural and healthy for forest ecosystems. After strenuously preventing wildfires for decades, the Forest Service had only prevented tons of dried, dead wood from being burned off, causing a build-up in easily flammable tinder. It took them about seventy years, but eventually, they too, did an about-face, admitting that their multi-generational strategy had backfired. And now we’re still paying the price.8 (See all of California for details.)

Or take the infamous “War on Drugs.” After five decades of draconian drug laws, the War on Drugs hasn’t even made a dent in the supply of illegal drugs around the world. Quite the opposite: illegal narcotics are more plentiful today than ever before.9,10

Smuggled drugs - the war on drugs and unintended consequences

By instituting strict prohibitions, we’ve pushed the drug markets underground where they cannot be taxed, regulated, or monitored. As a result, the War on Drugs paradoxically caused drugs to become cheaper and easier for people to buy.11

Drug cartels have grown so large that they now dominate and terrorize entire countries,12 corrupting governments and corporations.13 And what’s more, research shows that the stricter we make the drug laws, the more profit the cartels seem to make.14

The examples go on and on. More streamlined asbestos laws likely increase the amount of asbestos-related litigation.15 Stricter border controls can actually increase illegal immigration.16 Liability laws designed to punish oil companies for oil spills have likely only increased the probability of oil spills.17

So, yeah, governments suck, yada, yada. But what about our personal lives? Do we make similar mistakes? Do we often take the cure that’s worse than the poison?

Well… yes. Yes, we do.

You and Your Unintended Consequences

You ever been driving home in thick traffic and get so frustrated that you’re like, “You know what? Fuck this, I’m taking the back roads.” And then you turn off the freeway and proceed to get lost six different times and it takes twice as long to get home than it would have if you just sucked it up and stayed in the traffic jam?

Or you ever have that huge purchase you’ve always dreamed about — maybe it’s a nice car, or a big house, or a beautiful piece of land. And you fantasize and dream and save, and stay home on Fridays and cheat on your taxes for years until you can finally afford a down payment for your Big Ass Dream Thing. And then the day comes and you “buy” it — but what I really mean by “buy” is that you have these massive interest payments to a bank from now until the sun supernovas and it turns out that that Big Ass Dream Thing is kind of a headache and you don’t use it nearly as much as you thought you would and your friends certainly don’t seem to give a shit. Yet here you are handing over like 2/3 of your paycheck every month to some Big Bank, who you’re slowly becoming convinced is the incarnation of all evil and injustice in the universe.

Or you ever think someone is really annoying, but instead of just telling them to fuck off, you keep being nice to them because you feel bad and don’t want to be mean and you like to think of yourself as a nice, patient person? And before you know it, this person is inviting themselves over to your house and drinking your wine and introducing themselves to your friends and being a totally selfish twat and feeding off your social life like a parasite to the point where you just want to fumigate your entire apartment complex with everyone in it, killing everyone you know and yourself like the cockroaches you all are?

Or you ever been absolutely miserable in a job, but you were so complacent and emotionally dependent on its paycheck and social validation and false sense of importance that you just kept working and working and working, telling yourself “one more year,” then “one more year,” then “just one more year” until pretty soon your mental health has gone to shit and you become anxious and insomniatic and hypoglycemic and profoundly depressed on philosophical vectors previously unimagined18 and you’re on so many pills and now you really need that fucking job to keep your health insurance and steady stream of pill-prescription supply — and I mean, let’s be real, thank god for this job you hate, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have access to the medicine to treat all the health problems the job gave you.

Miserable businesswoman

Or you ever go through a terrible breakup but hate the fact that you and your ex don’t speak — I mean, you had such a great time together, isn’t it worth putting in a little effort to just be friends? Don’t you two deserve at least that much? So you call up your ex and you tell them that you’re sorry and you wish they could get along and they invite you over to their place at like midnight and you’re thinking to yourself, you know, it’s no big deal, we used to hang out at midnight all the time, and then six days later when you’re still at their house screaming at each other about who left the toaster oven on and why can’t you ever listen to me and I thought you loved me and you’re so oversexed that you can’t walk straight and you can’t tell if you love or hate this person with every metabolic calorie of your being and you’re wondering what the fuck am I doing here, how did I get here, I thought I broke up with you, like, four times?

Any of those things ever happen to you?

(Yeah, me neither.)

The Paradox of Playing It “Safe”

Our worst decisions never feel like horrible decisions. Our worst decisions always feel like good decisions in the moment. That’s why we make them.

This experience of “the cure being worse than the poison” often occurs because we are solving short-term, highly emotional problems without considering the long-term, second-order effects.

You go back to see your ex to solve that awful pang of guilt in the short-term, only to subject yourself to the much greater long-term risk of emotional turbulence.19,20 Just like Japan shut down its nuclear reactors to quell the short-term outrage and horror over the Fukushima disaster without considering the long-term effects of inviting greater amounts of pollution into the country.

We do this because our brains are biased filtering machines. We’re wired to experience the world in a skewed way, and that means our perceptions rarely—if ever—reflect reality.

We suffer from the Law of Unintended Consequences for a few reasons:

  • We are biased towards dealing with what we see as immediate threats, rather than addressing greater but slower, long-term risks.
  • We are biased towards focusing our attention on something that is tangible and easily-imagined or visualized rather than what is highly abstract (think the risk of a terrorist attack, which is incredibly low, versus the risk of disease, which is higher than you might think).
  • We are biased towards events that are highly dramatic rather than events that require large amounts of logical thinking. For example, you’re far more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. But a plane crash is so dramatic and terrifying that it causes far more anxiety for people.
  • We are bad at considering second-order and third-order effects. It’s difficult and counterintuitive to think two or three moves ahead in the chess game. We fail to consider how shutting down a reactor will affect electricity costs and how electricity costs will affect elderly citizens in winter, for example. We just see really scary TV shows that make it sound like nuclear fallout will cause babies to be born with three heads or something.
  • Consequences often have compounding effects. We are bad at considering compounding effects. For example, a terrorist attack like 9/11 is incredibly scary and it felt rational at the time to invest a lot of money into security. But that investment compounds over time, to the point where a decade later, the United States had spent upwards of $1 trillion dollars likely to only save a few hundred lives.21 Indeed, terrorism is probably the poster child for policies that are in no way proportional to the threat.22 And this doesn’t even take into account second-order effects, such as stricter travel laws, fewer immigrant visas, lower enrollment in universities, less air travel, etc.23

When something is scary, immediate, and tangible—like a nuclear power plant disaster—our biases kick in and interfere with our ability to judge the situation accurately. Thinking through long-term, second-order consequences is taxing. And when we’re highly emotional about a subject, we struggle to expend the effort to think through the consequences to the end. We don’t have time for a pros and cons list, that nuclear radiation is coming for us!

It’s in this way that protecting ourselves from what scares us the most in the moment can often make us vulnerable to much worse, less-noticeable problems far in the future.

How to Avoid the Law of Unintended Consequences

While we can never 100% safeguard ourselves against the Law of Unintended Consequences and the cognitive biases that cause it, there are some basic techniques you can apply to your decision-making to help you not fall victim to being such a dumb, dumb human:

1. “If I do nothing, will things get better on their own?” A lot of our bad decisions are merely a function of impatience. Learn to ask yourself, “If I do nothing, will this eventually get better?” In many cases it will. Sitting in traffic is the simplest example. Not reconnecting with an ex is a more emotional example. Not throwing non-violent drug offenders in prison during some of the most important years of their lives is probably a more practical social example.

We often overestimate how much we can control in a situation. Therefore, we underestimate the value of simply sitting and waiting. It won’t win you any popularity contests, but often the best (and most difficult) decision in a life is to simply do nothing.

Woman choosing doors

2. “What is the worst case scenario?” When evaluating our own ideas, we tend to be very good at seeing the benefits and terrible at seeing the risks. After all, they’re our ideas. We wouldn’t have had them if they weren’t fucking genius, right?

It’s difficult to poke holes in what feels right to you. Therefore, it’s useful to make a practice out of asking yourself, “What’s the worst case scenario here? What are all the ways this could go wrong?” Write out a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario and then ask yourself the probability of each case. Then take the probability you wrote for the worst-case scenario and quadruple it. Does it still feel worth doing?

3. “Is it possible that my choice could have the opposite effect? If so, how?” Back in 17th century England, parliament felt that banks were punishing the poor and middle classes with exorbitant interest rates. They decided to pass legislation placing a permanent ceiling on interest rates at 4%. Everyone seemed to think this was a great idea. Except for John Locke. John Locke thought this was a terrible idea. He argued that placing a limit on interest rates would then just force banks to find sneaky, less-regulated ways to lend money, primarily to rich people.

People thought Locke was crazy. “That’s the exact opposite effect of what we’re doing,” they argued. But… he was right. The law passed. Poor people got hosed. And the rich got richer. And today, John Locke is a bad ass taught in, like, every university ever. And the anonymous parliamentarians and bankers are still anonymous parliamentarians and bankers.

4. “Is this decision irrevocable?” One thing we often don’t consider is the revocability of our decisions. If you buy a car you don’t like, you can always resell it and make a significant amount of your money back. Yet, if you have a child, there’s no going back. Despite this fact, there’s a sizable population of people in the world who seem to spend more time thinking about the purchase of a car than they do having a child.

Some decisions are easy to undo. Some are incredibly difficult or impossible to undo. Yet, we often don’t spend enough time considering the latter and often spend way too much time worrying about the former.

A good rule of thumb: if a decision is not permanent, it’s better to move too fast. If a decision is permanent, it’s better to move too slow.

***

The combination of questions #1 and #4 is why so many governmental policies end up being ineffective. There is massive public pressure to do something in the face of a problem, even though the correct response is to do little or nothing. As a result, governments adopt heavy-handed policies, expand the bureaucracy, make a big publicity blitz about all the “great things” the politicians are doing for their people. The problem is that many of these policies are incredibly difficult to undo. This is why governments tend to become bloated and less efficient as time goes on.

In our personal lives, we tend to suffer more from questions #2 or #3. We are bad at considering the flaws in our own plans, at questioning our own emotional impulses and recognizing situations that can backfire terribly, causing the exact problem that we’re trying to alleviate. Staying in the job we hate makes us time-poor even though we may be financially wealthy. Trying to fix a broken relationship can make it worse, not better — in fact, it might be that desire to “fix” everything that broke it in the first place!

My wife and I hit our own Law of Unintended Consequences last year when we bought our first house. We tried to get our renovations and furnishing done quickly and cheaply. Yet, our desire to do things quickly and cheaply meant that we fucked way more stuff up, which ended up costing us far more and took far longer than it would’ve if we just did it right the first time.

Ultimately, the Law of Unintended Consequences is just another term for acknowledging our inevitable blindspots in decision-making. We don’t know what we don’t know. And as much as we consciously try to expand our areas of attention and knowledge, we will inevitably succumb to failures of foresight and care.

For as long as we’re able to think and breathe, we will continue to be wrong, in some shape or form. Yet, that’s never a reason to not try and be a little bit better.

Footnotes

  1. If you wake up in 300 million years feeling slightly under slept, now you know who to blame.
  2. Neidell, M., Uchida, S., & Veronesi, M. (2019). Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle: Evidence from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident (No. w26395; p. w26395). National Bureau of Economic Research.
  3. Low birthweight has been found to have a negative effect on IQ, height and earnings, and an inverse relationship with adult mortality, particularly cardiovascular mortality. See: Severnini, E. (2017). Impacts of nuclear plant shutdown on coal-fired power generation and infant health in the Tennessee Valley in the 1980s. Nature Energy, 2(4), 17051.
  4. Public Health – TransitionInAction.org
  5. Brockmeyer, S., & D’Angiulli, A. (2016). How air pollution alters brain development: The role of neuroinflammation. Translational Neuroscience, 7(1), 24–30.
  6. How air pollution is doing more than killing us.  BBC.
  7. Japan has restarted five nuclear power reactors in 2018—Today in Energy—U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
  8. Sierra National Forest—Land & Resources Management.
  9. Wodak AM, A. (2014). The abject failure of drug prohibition. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 47(2), 190–201.
  10. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2013). EU drug markets report. A strategic analysis.
  11. Werb, D., Kerr, T., Nosky, B., Strathdee, S., Montaner, J., & Wood, E. (2013). The temporal relationship between drug supply indicators: An audit of international government surveillance systems. BMJ Open, 3, e003077.
  12. International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. (2010). Effect of drug law enforcement on drug-related violence: Evidence from a scientific review.
  13. In 2012, the HSBC bank paid a fine in the USA of US$ 1.9 billion for laundering drug money. Prominent drug authorities in Australia have also received 20-plus year prison sentences for drug trafficking.
  14. A 2005 paper estimated that between 1973 and 1998, every dollar spent on drug law enforcement in Australia added another 4 dollars to the cannabis black market. A 1989 paper published in Science concluded that, “The greatest beneficiaries of the drug laws are organized and unorganized drug traffickers.”
  15. Schwartz, Victor E.; Tedesco, Rochelle M. “The Law of Unintended Consequences in Asbestos Litigation: How Efforts to Streamline the Litigation Have Fueled More Claims“. Mississippi Law Journal. HeinOnline. 71: 531.
  16. This is because most migrant workers actually prefer to return to their home country after they have worked for a while. When you make it more difficult to cross borders, you actually encourage them to stay illegally in the country they enter. Tighter border controls don’t discourage crossings, they discourage people returning, thus causing more illegal immigration. For a great investigation of this effect with the US/Mexico border, see Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast, season three, episode five: “General Chapman’s Last Stand.”
  17. This is because the oil companies now hire independent contractors with worse ships to transport the oil, rather than using their own tankers. See: Norton, Rob (2008). “Unintended Consequences“. In David R. Henderson (ed.). Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (2nd ed.). Indianapolis: Library of Economics and Liberty.
  18. Stansfeld, S., & Candy, B. (2006). Psychosocial work environment and mental health—A meta-analytic review. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 32(6), 443–462.
  19. Orth-Gomér, K., Wamala, S. P., Horsten, M., Schenck-Gustafsson, K., Schneiderman, N., & Mittleman, M. A. (2000). Marital stress worsens prognosis in women with coronary heart disease: The Stockholm Female Coronary Risk StudyJAMA284(23), 3008–3014.
  20. Nealey-Moore, J. B., Smith, T. W., Uchino, B. N., Hawkins, M. W., & Olson-Cerny, C. (2007). Cardiovascular Reactivity During Positive and Negative Marital InteractionsJournal of Behavioral Medicine30(6), 505–519.
  21. Mueller, J., & Stewart, M. G. (2014). Evaluating Counterterrorism Spending. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(3), 237–248.
  22. Chowdhury, A., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2013). Effective but inefficient: Understanding the costs of counterterrorism. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 6(3), 447–456.
  23. Gold, D. (2005). The Costs of Terrorism and the Costs of Countering Terrorism. International Affairs Working Paper, 3.