Unintended consequences are related to tradeoffs. Just like the pros and cons of every decision that we don’t see, there may be some unanticipated effects caused by the decision.
People tend to stick to the status quo unless the forces of friction or fuel push us off of our path; behavior is a function of the person and their environment; every decision includes tradeoffs and the potential for unintended consequences.
Humans are creatures of least resistance.
There’s a bias we share that describes why we’re so bad at this, and it’s called the status quo bias. The status quo is a powerful force in human behavior, directly analogous to the inertia described by Newton’s first law of motion: force is necessary for a change in motion to occur.
There are two primary types of forces in the context of human behavior, just as there are in physics:
forces that get in the way of performing a behavior are called “friction” — from the feeling of exhaustion when it’s time to exercise to the application form to set up a health savings account.
“Fuel” is the second type of force, representing anything that makes a behavior more appealing — from the gamification of un-fun procedures to delivering incentives contingent on good behavior.
Friction slows you down, and fuel pushes you forward. Unless there are changes in friction or fuel, you tend to stick to the status quo. But by the same principle, changes in behavior can occur through changes in fuel and friction.
Behavior is not something that lives in a vacuum. It’s the combination of a person — with all their intentions, beliefs, knowledge, motivation, personality, history and so on — and their environment — including everything from the choice architecture of a grocery store checkout line to the lights, smells, and friends or foes surrounding them.
Kurt Lewin is famous for pinning human behavior down to these two essential elements: the individual characteristics or state of a person, and the environment in which they are situated. His universal equation B = ƒ(P,E) goes way back to 1936 and is no less relevant today.
This concept of “what are all the things I am giving up if I do X?” is known as the opportunity cost, and it’s a type of tradeoff that we often ignore.
One way to weigh tradeoffs like these is to classify the potential pros and cons of a decision and then weigh them (a method called signal detection theory
When situations are complex and involve a degree of uncertainty, we can use this method to consider the tradeoffs of a particular decision. Because our time and resources are limited, we have to choose how to spend them wisely.
When making a decision, we may not predict future effects that negate or undermine the positive aspects of that decision.
The tragedy of the commons is a classic example of negative externalities: when each individual acts in their own interest, it’s not their intention to deplete the pool of resources so that everyone else suffers — but that’s exactly what can happen when shared resources are abused.
A classic example of this is the “crowding out” or overjustification effect, where a positive behavior (like exercise) is initially boosted with an extrinsic incentive (e.g., financial reward), but the positive effect disappears (and may even retreat to a level lower than before the incentive was introduced!) as soon as the incentive is discontinued. Rewards like this can increase a behavior in the short term, but undermine motivation in the long term.
our actions have effects that go beyond the impact on ourselves. These types of effects on third parties are called externalities
As expected, Emma is generally more likely to order a salad when she is not stressed overall (compared to when she is stressed), just as she is generally more likely to order a salad when there is a sign about salads present (compared to no sign). But something interesting happens when she is both stressed and there is a sign. In this case, when Emma is stressed, the sign actually backfires and leads to a lower likelihood of Emma getting a salad than if there were no sign present. We might suspect that when she’s stressed, seeing a sign promoting salads could come off as patronizing, leading Emma to exhibit reactance which triggers a rebellion against the salads. While this is just one fictitious and simplified example, it demonstrates the importance of considering both the person and the environment when trying to understand behavior
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