“When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. When you desire a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold
Consequences, not so powerful in word but more in action. 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. So powerful, it moved Japan’s main island by 2.4 meters. It shifted the Earth’s axis by about 10 centimetres and sped up the planet’s rotation by a few microseconds. The damage from the earthquake and the tsunami it produced was of biblical proportion. With only eight minutes of warning, waves swept as far as 10 kilometres 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.
But wait, it gets worse. Authorities quickly discovered that a number of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant had been severely damaged. Huge amounts 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 this 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 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 mobilise its coal plants and build more. This disruption in power supply led to an increase in the 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 bevvy 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.
Call it a case of the cure being worse than the poison or selling your shoes to buy shoelaces.
To their credit, the Japanese government has since hit a U-turn, since 2018 they have begun re-activating their nuclear reactors. Their goal is to have them fully online again (and upgraded) by 2030.
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 vague 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 jab at it:
The Law of Unintended Consequences occurs when an impulsive, emotional decision is made that unintentionally creates more problems than it solves.
A friend of mine said to me “this place has taught me that I cannot have my cake and eat it“. To which I asked if it is actually how they feel or it’s just the environment they are in that is causing them to think that way. The conversation quickly moved to why they would want to change themselves because of a situation and not because they want to change ( I paraphrase).
You and Your Unintended Consequences
Have you ever been frustrated by a process in life that you decide to take a short cut only to realise you were better off sticking out the process? 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 fantasise and dream and save, and stay home on Fridays and cheat on your taxes for years until you can finally afford it. Then the day comes and you “buy” it — but what I really mean by “buy” is that you have these massive re-payments to a bank from now until you die. And that feeling of “this is my dream” no longer satisfies you. Yet here you are handing over like 2/3 of your salary 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 have ever been absolutely miserable in a job, but you were so complacent and emotionally dependent on the salary 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 the dogs. And you become anxious and insomniac and hypoglycemic and profoundly depressed on philosophical vectors previously unimagined. And you’re on so many pills and now you really need that job to keep your health insurance and a 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.
You may 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 2 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. They invite you over to their place at midnight and you’re thinking to yourself, it’s no big deal, we used to hang out all the time. Then six days later when you’re still at their house screaming at each other about who left the toaster on. And why can’t you listen to me and I thought you loved me. But you’re so oversexed that you can’t walk straight. You can’t tell if you love or hate this person with every metabolic calorie of your being. You’re wondering what am I doing here? How did I get here, I thought I broke up with you, like, four times? That’s an exaggeration but I’m sure you get the picture aye?
Why Playing It Safe Is Not 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 pain of guilt in the short-term, only to subject yourself to the much greater long-term risk of emotional turbulence. 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. Like I told my friend, we are all selfish.
We suffer from the Power of 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.
- Also we are biased towards focusing our attention on something that is tangible and easily-imagined or visualised 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 2 or 3 moves ahead in the chess game or 2 or 3 shots ahead in a game of pool at the Inn. 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, after a terrorist attack like 9/11 it felt rational at the time to invest in 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. Indeed, terrorism is probably the poster child for policies that are in no way proportional to the threat. 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.
When something is scary 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 at the moment can often make us vulnerable to much worse, less-noticeable problems far in the future.
How to Avoid The Power of Consequences
While we can never 100% safeguard ourselves against the power of consequences and the cognitive biases that cause them. There are some basic techniques you can apply to your decision-making to help you not fall victim to being such a 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 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 decision in life is to simply do nothing. Just wait. Time always tells…
2. “What is the worst-case scenario?” When evaluating our own ideas, we tend to be 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 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? I for one hope for the best but I plan for the worst.
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. Today, John Locke is taught in like every university ever. And the anonymous parliamentarians and bankers are still anonymous parliamentarians and bankers. Go figure.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 contracting HIV. Tweet Me
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 catch HIV, 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 contracting HIV.
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. I told my same friend ” Do not make permanent decisions based on temporary situations“.
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. A good case study would be Robert Mugabe’s Land Reform Program in Zimbabwe in the late 90’s.
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 recognising 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!
The truth about consequences is 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. We may not be perfect, but we are good. And that is all there is to it.
As always, hope you and yours are safe. Catch up with us in the comments section and let us know your thoughts.
Photo Credit : Photo by Pixabay