The Cobra Effect

The Cobra Effect

As the saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” People sometimes act with the best of intentions, but their actions lead to unintended and even perverse outcomes.

And of course some people act with the worst of intentions.

Consider the “cobra effect”, a term coined by German economist Horst Siebert. In the 19th century, colonial officials of the British Raj decided to pay bounties to Indians for rounding up cobras. On the face of it, this seemed to be a good way of engaging the indigenous population to manage a venomous species. Then some Indians began breeding cobras, in order to collect the bounty, treating it as a regular source of income. And when the British officials found out, they canceled the programme, upon which the cobra-breeders released their cobras into the streets. This only compounded the original problem.

The cobra effect involves a self-defeating pattern of behaviour: initial problems are not well understood (perhaps because of unrealistic expectations); disproportionate remedies in turn create more havoc; and there seems no way of escaping a dynamic of action-and-reaction, like the unpredictable ebb and flow of the ocean.

I can think of several examples of the cobra effect.

Bureaucrats gone wild: There has been a massive campaign in Montreal to recycle waste paper and plastic. The City pays companies incentives to collect this waste, while reminding the public that they could face significant fines for not recycling. The response has been phenomenal. But it turns out that 70% of Montreal’s recycled matter actually ends up as landfill – in the dump. So, a symbolic victory is transformed into a very real defeat.

The rebound: A young lady with dependency issues brutally breaks off a relationship, in a harrowing gesture of independence, only to latch on to a new all-engrossing dependent relationship right after. All to satisfy an unconscious, insatiable need. The “new relationship” is everything the “old one” was not – right up to the point where the new relationship becomes suffocating, just like the old one. And the cycle continues….

The antithesis: Brexit was predicated on the United Kingdom regaining symbolic sovereignty and its former national glory by leaving the European Union. But Brexit may well lead to the dismemberment of the United Kingdom itself, as Scotland clamours for independence and re-inclusion in the EU, with a greatly reduced England left to fend for itself alongside Wales and Northern Ireland. Brexit provides Brexiters with short-term satisfactions, but may bring on huge unintended problems in the mid-term, such as a loss of effective sovereignty, not to mention unpredictable relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Boris Johnson is adept at divorcing himself from the consequences of his own actions. He finds it politically useful to treat Europe as a sort of scarecrow. His bold plan of strengthening Britain may actually end up weakening Britain.

Punish the whistle-blower: I have seen a work situation where a corporate officer/whistle-blower felt duty-bound to report fraud, theft of intellectual property, conflicts of interest, and breaches of fiduciary duty by Board members. But it proved more convenient for the organization to isolate the whistle-blower himself, then punish him, than to address practices which were destroying the organization.

The ebb and flow of the ocean

These various examples of the cobra effect illustrate the dangers of making facile assumptions; reacting rather than acting; seeking short-term and superficial satisfactions without addressing one’s longer-term and deep-seated needs; driving a wedge between appealing actions and their perverse consequences; and placing a whistle-blower in a kind of rhetorical theatre, where he gets blamed for denouncing law-breaking whereas the law-breakers wander off, free from any penalty or harm.

Life is a non-stop negotiation between different choices. But because we live in society, and are not completely alone, unintended consequences often spread beyond our control, in a kind of ripple effect. The consequences of other peoples actions, and of our own.


March 3, 2020

Morning Blue

March 3, 2020

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