Didn’t You See That One Coming? — Five Ways to Understand the Impact of Your Decisions

It’s difficult to admit when you have been on the wrong side of an issue. Be curious instead of defensive and watch as your world expands.

I didn’t think I’d end up arguing that polygamy should not be a felony. As a proponent of equality in-and-out of marriage, I was firmly against plural marriages (and for good reasons). I was initially horrified when the penalty for plural marriages was reduced to that of jaywalking; until I learned why.

Unintended consequences are fascinating because it gives data-based weight to the phrase: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

There are three types of unintended consequence:

  • An unexpected drawback: the action succeeds with unintended negative results
  • A perverse result: the action backfires to make the situation worse
  • An unexpected benefit: a positive outcome from an adverse event

An unexpected drawback

Imagine this; you were married when you were 18-years-old to an abusive man with three other wives, and now have kids. You want out. You want your kids out.

If you try to get help, you could be arrested for the crime of being married in the first place. Your kids would be taken away.

Would you leave?

Turning plural marriage into a felony offense is a perfect example of an unexpected drawback. The law sought to reduce the number of plural marriages and succeeded. However, it failed in the root goal of making the lives of those impacted safer.

A perverse result

My middle school friend, Maricella, was brilliant and put up with my long monologues about college like a champ. I remember waxing poetic about going to Harvard, and how she would of course, be my roommate. She stopped me in my vocal tracks by matter-of-factly saying,

“Oh I’m not going to college”.

I was shocked. Maricella was brilliant, and I didn’t understand what other options there were. When interrogated, she said, “I’m illegal (immigrant), so I can’t go. I’ll probably get married and have kids after high school”.

She was the first person I knew who came “out” about not having a green card and lived in terror of “la Migra.” She was not the last by a long shot, as I lived in El Barrio. Most of my classmates were in the same camp.

Her grandfather, uncles, and father were migrant farmers. They previously traveled back-and-forth across the then porous border to work seasonal crops. They’d return home after the season was over to be with their family.

In the ’70s, the border became militarized and less-and-less safe to cross. Instead of a quick and easy trip, migrants needed to travel across the high desert, risking death each journey. The financial incentives were still in America, so the men would make the trip. However, instead of returning home, Maricella’s and her family joined him.

The increased militarization of the border is a great example of a perverse result. Instead of reducing migration, it curtailed the beneficial cyclical migration and while increasing total permanent migration.

I am from a Fox News watching, Bush voting, and pro-border family. But I remember strongly feeling it was a waste to have talented kids like Maricella not achieve their potential. Maricella was brought over as a toddler, knowing nothing but America. But her lack of American citizenship was an albatross around the neck of her future.

If she could grow to her potential, I have no doubt she would be an asset to America-an an unintended benefit of the policy.

I hope this is the case.

An unexpected benefit

This won’t surprise you, dear reader in 2021 or later, but bad things happen.

The Black Death is a pretty extreme example of bad things happening. The epidemic killed 30 to 50 percent of the entire population of Europe. Between 75 and 200 million people died in a few years’ time, source.

It puts our current numbers into perspective, dismal as they are.

What is interesting, though, is what happened afterward.

In the 200 years that it took the population size to recover, most people lived better lives. The effect of half the population dying (especially those who were poor, old, and frail) was the value of labor skyrocketed while the availability of resources was abundant. People couldn’t be discriminatory about who they trained to be a blacksmith, and it became easy to move into the abandoned farm and use the readily available tools and land. Class mobility took hold for the first time in Europe.

Research showed that if you survived the plague, you were far more likely to live to an older age, eat better, and have more children than you’d otherwise expect.

There are examples of unintended consequences everywhere, but learning how to mitigate the bad while understanding the good, is an art.

Here are a few tips to better anticipate consequences:

  • Understand the root problem you are trying to solve. For example, are you trying to decrease plural marriages or increase women’s and children’s safety and well-being?
  • Get other perspectives and be willing to change your mind based on evidence. Don’t dig in on a mistake just because you spent a lot of time or emotional energy making it.
  • Utilize second-order thinking (and then what) to field test the consequences of actions. For example, when solving the “problem” of migration, considering the “then what” for both the migrants and American farmers.
  • Reduce acting at the moment. We all want to take action when emotions run high, but decision making in emotionally charged situations causes short-sighted solutions.
  • Keep your eyes open for silver linings; see what good you can take from a bad situation. And be willing to call it out.

Being called out on faulty thinking is a humbling yet mind-opening experience. It’s too easy to stay in an echo chamber, surrounded by your own beliefs — yet it never has it been more important to seek out other ideas.

A socially awkward jumble of contradictions, questions, and tangents.

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