There’s an old story about the last days of the Raj, back home in India. The British wanted to cut down on the number of cobras in a city. So, they offered some money for every dead cobra. Predictably, a lot of cobras were killed. But then, some folk started to breed cobras. Turns out it was a good business model since the cost of breeding and raising snakes was less than the reward. Once the Brits found out, they stopped the program. And so, the breeders shut down their operations, released their ‘supplies’, and the number of cobras was higher than ever before.
Cue laugh track.
The cobra effect is an example of unintentional side effects. These tend to crop up when people focus on one part of a problem and fail to think through the possibilities.
What if the Brits had released packs of mongooses? Sure, less cobras, but now there’s a mongoose problem. What if they’d put a cap on the number of cobras they were willing to reward per day or even reduced the amount of money they rewarded?
Pure theory, sure, but you can see how a little bit more thought would illustrate the deep complexity of the problem.
Here’s another thought experiment. First, give this a read.
So, given a known cycle (algae -> water flea -> fishy) and an unwanted state (too much algae, not enough fishy), would boosting one part of the cycle (truckload of water fleas), force the cycle back into a wanted state? Or would it create a whole new cycle (water fleas eating algae and each other and fishys and providing a growth medium for ultra death spores)?
Well? What’s the answer? Come on now, we haven’t got all day!
Okay, okay, that was unfair. As much fun as it is to poke fun at the Brits (especially if you’re one of the ex-colonies), they didn’t do anything wrong. They just made the best decision they could with the information they had. In fact, there are stacks upon stacks of examples of unintended consequences.
And it would not be a massive leap to say that each and every one of us has done the same thing in our own lives.
We attempt to impose order on a chaotic system and as the strange side effects pop out, we scramble to control those too. The quest for perfect control over a chaotic world is what brings us everything from to-do lists on smartphones to conspiracy theories about shadowy groups that ‘have a plan’.
So what can we do about it? Do we just accept the chaos and live with the increasing chance that a cobra will end our lives? Do we give up the idea of fixing things?
While that isn’t a bad decision, it’s a little too passive/nihilistic for my tastes. Instead, I’d suggest banging stochastic systems into each other. Stochastic systems are those whose behavior is determined by predictable actions and a random element.
In stochastic systems, it is that element of randomness that causes our silly little causation dependent brains to go kablooey.
But the goal isn’t to change a system, it’s to solve the part of the system where we have a problem.
So, while I am on the fence about to causing a mosquito population collapse (lookin’ at you Cali), I’m all-in on tweaking the little bastards so they don’t hurt humans even if we’re aware of some…problems down the line
The difference? The latter addresses the problem, the former addresses the source. That source is part of a larger ecosystem that we don’t fully understand. And as true as it is for large ecological systems, and even cobra-based rewards, it’s also true in our day to day lives.
It’s a far more effective action to solve the problem, instead of assuming you understand enough to solve the system. And as long as randomness exists, there will always be unintended consequences.
So embrace the chaos, surf the wave, and solve the problem in front of you.