The Best Intentions Can Have Unintended Consequences
The Cobra Effect and how to avoid falling prey to it
During the British rule of Colonial India, venomous snakes were causing all kinds of problems in Delhi. Cobras, in particular, were a menace.
Something needed to be done to stop the spread of the Cobras and the British had just the plan. They decided to introduce a few incentives to the local population to speed up the process. For every dead cobra that was brought to the government, a bounty would be awarded.
Initially, this had the desired effect. Large numbers of cobras were killed and handed in, in return for the bounty. However, as time went on, the British started to notice something peculiar.
The number of dead cobras did not decline, they remained stayed the same and even increased over time.
Instead of acting as the British thought they would, the enterprising local population had started to breed cobras to claim the bounty. Once the British became aware of this, they removed the bounty.
This left the Cobra breeders with hundreds of snakes that were now worthless. So what did they do once the policy had changed?
They realised the cobras into the wild exacerbating the original problem the British had tried to rectify.
This anecdote came to be known as the Cobra Effect, which occurs when an attempted solution to a problem makes the problem worse. It highlights how good ideas in principle can have unintended consequences in practice.
An offshoot of the Cobra Effect is Campbell’s Law which states that when you reward someone for a particular measure, such as clicks, dollars, or dead cobras, they will try and game the system for their benefit.
Humans are resourceful. We go to extraordinary lengths to try and gain an advantage. In a world that is becoming increasingly status-driven and competitive is offering incentives still a good idea?
Incentivised to Fail
When you consider the above story it makes perfect sense the scheme would fail. Offering people money in return for dead animals creates a feedback loop, where people will rear more animals to get more money.
However, at the time, the scheme would have appeared to make logical sense to the British. Humans work on incentives if you issue a decree for people to hand in dead cobras, very few people are going to do it for free.
You might get a few people who want to help based on their principles, but the vast majority will ask, “what’s in it for me?”
This is where incentives come in. To encourage people to do something, you have to offer them something. Most of us do not willingly go to work for the love of our jobs, we go because the time we spend there is rewarded in the form of an hourly wage.
However, it is very hard to game the system when it comes to extracting more pay from your employers. When it comes to incentivised based public policy though, it is much easier.
It is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and come to the conclusion that the Cobra policy was bound to fail, but when you think about it, offering money is the obvious solution.
The problem is that this line of thinking often fails because it represents a fundamental lack of understanding in regards to human nature. When presented with an opportunity or roadblock, we are experts at thinking up ways to game the system, negating the intended efforts of policymakers.
Another example is a policy the Mexican government introduced in November 1989. In order to reduce traffic and air pollution in Mexico City, the administration introduced a ban which restricted each car from driving on a specified work-day.
On the face of it, the policy seems like a good idea, traffic would surely reduce if people weren’t allowed to drive their cars on certain days of the week. However, traffic did not decrease it increased.
To get around the ban, families bought a second car to get an additional driving permit, which meant they could just drive the second car on the day their original car was not permitted on the road. Despite the ban, experts found that there was no discernible reduction in the level of traffic or air pollution.
As smart as governments and policymakers try to be, they are never going to be as smart as the people who are scheming against them. This is because when you think up a policy, you often think of the positive consequences rather than the negatives.
The schemers also have the benefit of knowing the parameters they are operating under. Families in Mexico knew that their car would be off the road on one day of the week, so they had to think of ways to counteract this. Likewise, the Cobra breeders knew that if they handed in more cobras, they would earn more money.
The advantage in these scenarios is always with the schemers as they can dictate the terms. Whereas the policymakers have to react if their ideas don’t go the way they intended.
The Instagram Effect
A 21st Century variation of the Cobra Effect is what I like to call the Instagram Effect. Without realising it, or maybe you have, most of the social media apps that we use daily incentivise us to use them more.
Instagram started as a simple photosharing website. When you first signed up you may have wanted to share a few pictures that you had captured.
Maybe they were of interesting buildings you’ve come across.
Maybe they were photos of your closet friends
And, maybe you had a few selfies too because who doesn’t take selfies nowadays?
At the start, these photos may have only got a few likes, but over time, you begin to get more and more likes. Your follower count starts to increase and before you know it you have thousands of followers.
Now every time you post a photo on Instagram you expect to get a certain number of likes. You spend hours engaging with other people’s photos so that the algorithm notices you. Maybe one day, you hope you’ll get enough likes and followers to be like those influencers you follow obsessively.
Posting pictures on Instagram has progressed from a hobby into an obsession. Every photo is carefully crafted for maximum exposure. Instead of using the app for fun, it has become a serious undertaking that now directly affects your mental wellbeing.
This is the world we live in today. Social media was supposed to bring us closer to each other, but it has pushed us further away from each other.
We spend more time on our phones, we post narcissistic photos because we want to be liked. Likes, clicks and follower counts have become a form of currency, we will do anything to get more.
I’m sure this wasn’t what the founders of Instagram intended when they created the app. Unwittingly, they have incentivised millions of people to chase vanity metrics in the hope of external validation from people around the world that they do not know on a personal level.
The question is what can we do to mitigate our exposure to the Instagram Effect? The simple answer is to delete the app altogether, but that may not be the most practical advice. A better idea is to reduce the amount of time you spend on the app.
Do not take the metrics too seriously. Unfollow people who do not add value to your life. Your attention is a commodity. Do not waste it by spending hours living on an app.
Social media was created to bring us closer to our friends and reconnect with long lost ones. Now, it has morphed into an all-consuming behemoth whose main intention is to keep us on the app for as long as possible no matter what.
From humble and well-meaning beginnings it has become something else entirely.
Even the most well-meaning of ideas can spiral out of control if they fail to take human nature into account. This creates a minefield for policymakers, but it creates a problem for all of us too.
We make many choices and decisions every day without considering the potential effects. We should be wary who we incentivise and what incentives we follow.
It may seem a good idea to tell your children they can play video games only after they have finished their homework, but this could have the adverse effect of them paying for it to be done or feigning completion altogether.
The same is true of us as writers. If we base writing and journalism around the incentive of clicks, naturally, we will deviate to writing more sensationalist headlines to attain those clicks.
The goal should never be to meet short-term incentives, as we have seen, they can be as quickly removed as they were introduced. The goal should be to do something because it benefits you, or because you want to.
Build your life around rock-solid principles, ones that you want to uphold no matter how many incentives are thrown in your direction.
Only then, can you avoid falling prey to human nature and joining the Cobra breeders chasing a short-term bounty.