Unintended Consequences

cheap rentMurphy’s law states that if anything can possibly go wrong, it probably will. A cynical view, to be sure, but one supported by considerable evidence. On the other hand, things can also go unexpectedly right. Both situations underscore the same fact—intentions do not govern outcomes.

For example, the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended to rescue Americans from the evil effects of alcohol consumption. The rescue never occurred, but what did occur was something the amendment’s supporters never envisioned—the rise of crime and violence among those vying to profit from the sale of illegal alcohol.

Similarly, the Great Society initiatives of Lyndon Johnson and his successors were intended to eliminate poverty but half a century and trillions of dollars later we haven’t come close to achieving that goal. However, a troubling unintended consequence is very much in evidence. Millions of people became dependent on government and developed a sense of entitlement.

Could the unintended consequences of Prohibition and the Great Society initiatives have been, to some extent, anticipated? Certainly, and really quite easily. If supporters of the former had examined examples of various kinds of prohibitions throughout history, they would have learned that they seldom work as planned.  If supporters of the latter had consulted psychology (or even folk wisdom), they would have learned that responsibility and initiative, once lost, are difficult to regain.

So why didn’t they consider such unintended consequences before they acted? Even more important, why don’t people in authority today profit from their predecessors’ mistakes? The second question in especially relevant because as costly mistakes are compounded, the burden on citizens is significantly increased.

Failure to anticipate unintended consequences has at least two causes. The first is what Karl Duncker termed “poverty of aspect,” the habit of seeing the world narrowly, which he regarded as “the chief characteristic of poor thinking.” This habit may be due to laziness, the failure of the schools to provide adequate training in thinking, or both. Among the highly educated, it is often due, as well, to the specialization required in virtually every academic field.

In medicine, for example, traditionally trained internists are generally adept at treating diseases with drugs but unfamiliar with vitamin and herbal supplements. Surgeons are trained in surgical procedures but disinclined to refer patients for physical therapy alternatives. Likewise, diplomats prefer negotiating solutions to geopolitical problems, whereas military experts think of waging war—with air force experts preferring aerial assaults, artillery experts favoring bombardment, and infantry experts advocating the use of troops. (As an old adage claims, to the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

Similarly, Sigmund Freud and his followers were so focused on the unconscious mind that they ignored and even denied the workings of the conscious mind, notably the process of thinking. Moreover, they were so intent on identifying psychoneuroses that they had trouble identifying normalcy. Later, humanistic psychologists were so focused on their patients’ self-acceptance that they ignored the danger of narcissism.

An extreme example of poverty of aspect is the case of renowned psychiatrist David Burns, who was so determined to help people feel good about themselves that he wrote a book (Feeling Good) advising them to pursue mediocrity rather than excellence! Ironically, he offered this advice at a time when employers around the country were complaining that many workers lacked the skills necessary for competent performance. (Several years later, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote a best-selling book In Search of Excellence, which expressed a view diametrically opposed to Burns’ view.)

Experts are not the only ones afflicted by poverty of aspect. The story is told that when a museum guide finished taking a tour group through the collection of art masterpieces and explaining the various periods and artistic techniques represented, he asked whether anyone had any questions for him. One woman then raised her hand and asked, “What brand of polish do you use to keep the floors so bright?”

Poverty of aspect can be overcome. People can learn to appreciate the value of broadening their perspective and make a conscious effort to think critically about their own ideas by testing them against opposing ideas and considering worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, the second cause of ignoring unintended consequences is much more resistant to change. That cause is arrogance and it seems to be approaching epidemic proportions, particularly among elected officials.

Arrogance derives from assuming that one’s opinions are not only superior to other people’s, but also that they are unquestionably correct. A century ago this assumption would be classified as a dangerous delusion. Today it is widely considered a profound truth because, since the 1960s, Humanistic Psychology has taught that each person is the locus of his/her own authority and creates his/her own truth and reality. The popularization of this view has fostered one of the most dangerous unintended consequences of our time (and perhaps any time)—the creation of a generation of leaders who refuse to listen to views other than their own and consider their very expression as a personal affront.

So enamored are such people of their ideas that when their initiatives fail, they blame others. The stronger the evidence against their programs, the more vigorously they pursue them, without regard for the staggering sums of taxpayer money they are wasting in the process. In other words, they respond in a way that fits Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The absurdity this produces can be breathtaking. No better example of such absurdity was House-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offering fellow members of Congress only 72 hours to analyze the over 2000-page “Obamacare” bill and then announcing to the public, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.” Americans will be living with the consequences of that arrogance for a very longtime.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved