We do our best to make good decisions, but we can’t know everything they’ll lead to.
My kids and I just flew across country for a little vacation. We changed planes three times during the eleven hour trip, each time dragging our luggage through a different airport. We weren’t alone: The cabin of each of our overbooked flights was packed with crabby passengers and their luggage.
Meanwhile, the other half of each plane—the place we used to call the baggage hold—remained emptier than the plot of an Adam Sandler movie. When airlines decided to increase revenue by charging for checked luggage, passengers responded by jamming everything they own into overstuffed carry-on bags that they violently force into the planes’ overhead compartments. This is a head-bruising example of the law of unintended consequences.
This simple concept, popularized by a sociologist named Robert Merton but perhaps really popularized by Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, is pretty self-explanatory: Choose a course of action, expect a result, watch the fun as unexpected outcomes prairie dog their little heads up. Writers deal with this all the time. For example, I tossed “emptier than the plot of an Adam Sandler movie” into the previous paragraph anticipating a little smile from you, but the unintended consequence is that I’ll get a blistering response from a Sandler fan whose life was changed by the actor’s nuanced performance in Jack and Jill. I’m guessing that for Adam Sandler that would be an unintended consequence of a movie that wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a few laughs.
Parents deal with this on a daily basis. If we demand good grades we might get them only to find out that our kids cheated, or at best studied to the test and have no real grasp of the material. On the other hand, if we tell our children that grades aren’t important we run the risk of other uncertain outcomes. If we come down on our kids too hard when they do something we disapprove of, they hide their crimes. Don’t believe me? Look under the couch cushions for candy wrappers. But being too permissive has equally unsatisfactory consequences. The unintended outcomes seem infinite, which is why so many parents exhibit the thousand-yard stare of combat veterans.
Some unintended consequences are massive. I doubt that the first hunter-gatherer to master plant propagation envisioned enormous cities and a global population of seven billion, nor did the Wright Brothers perfect powered flight with an eye toward drone warfare. Sixteen watertight compartments didn’t make the Titanic unsinkable — they just made it sink faster.
Others are massive on a more personal scale: the quick text while driving that ends in vehicular manslaughter, or that just-one-time night of unprotected passion that changes a dude into a dad. Unintended consequences are a life and death concern.
That doesn’t make them all bad, though. A little blue heart pill had the unexpected side effect of putting wind back in wrinkly sails, and Viagra was born.
The law of unintended consequences is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean it’s unmanageable. Just like chess, a good outcome means playing the probabilities:
- Kindness will probably lead to more kindness
- Calmness will probably keep a disagreement from turning into an argument
- Moderation will probably result in a healthy old age with enough money to afford something better than cat food
- Hard Work will probably earn positive results, regardless of whether we’re talking about the gym, your love life, or your career.
But you never know. All that hard work might leave you with six-pack abs, a corner office, and an estranged spouse. The best that we can do is focus on doing the right things for the right reasons and accept that sometimes the law of unintended consequences does not find in our favor.
I’m going to play the odds right now. This is the last leg of my 11 hour cross country journey, and I think it’s time I take control of my fate. I’m going to open my overhead compartment and hope that one of these 600 pound carry-ons lands on my head before the in-flight movie starts. I hear it stars Adam Sandler.