In a classic Sesame Street sketch, Carl brushes his teeth and then washes his hands, water running the entire time. Frank the Fish has been humming along happily in his pond (connected directly to the faucet) as his lifeline drains away. He struggles. He calls Carl to ask him to turn off the tap and reminds him not to waste water. It’s a 46-second lesson that’s lasted me decades, but my topic is not water conservation.
Friday night, after a long day of packing and being packed for a move to California, one of my sons needed to make a run to a dumpster for excess trash. I went along to help. The last of the bags, which I admit I’d packed, held two quart containers of dried up drywall compound. The bag itself, which I admit I purchased, was cheap so only .9 mil thick. My son is father and founder of the Taylor Boys Play-It-Where-It-Lays Society, so I wasn’t surprised when he decided to make a game of tossing said bag into the dumpster. As he lofted it over his head and into the air, the bag pretty much disintegrated, sending the dried mud containers hurtling right toward me. They were heavy and, thankfully, dropped before they reached me. It was hilarious although I guess you had to be there for the full effect. I laughed a lot harder than he did. But my topic is not cheaping out on garbage bags or throwing trash at your mother.
Unintended consequences are not new. In fact, their study has a complex history. The term was popularized in 1936 in a scholarly paper by Robert Merton called “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in American Sociological Review. To say that I understand this work would be a stretch, but if you are willing to take my word for it, he adds in his conclusion that trying to predict what people will do finds an obstacle because the prediction becomes part of the equation. Planners act without taking into account how people (or rabbits or kudzu, not his focus) will react to their plan. The most famous example is the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated legal production of alcohol but led to widespread corruption, organized crime, and, probably, more actual alcohol consumption. Ken Burns made a documentary about these unintended consequences.
My takeaway? Be more thoughtful. No, that’s not quite adequate. Think at all. How do our words and actions affect others? Not an easy call. But the question should be part of our planning and doing. A policeman once told me that he took three seconds before acting in difficult situations. Later I asked him if he’d said ten seconds. He laughed and said no: that would get him killed. Three seconds. We can all live and prosper with that.