Second-Order Effects (or: Batman was an Unintended Consequence)

Every action has a consequence, and each consequence has another consequence. These are called Second-Order Effects. Every change you make to a system will have Second-Order Effects, which may affect the system’s functionality. Be careful when making changes, they may have the opposite effect of what you aimed for.

Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA

Dark alley. Thug with a gun. Two well-dressed opera goers with their son. A stickup. The gun fires multiple times. The parents fall to the pavement. Batman begins.

The thug shooting and killing Bruce Wayne’s parents was a first-order effect. He took an action, and they died. However, the consequence of that was the tortured childhood of Bruce Wayne, which, combined with the deterioration of Gotham, led to the rise of Batman.

I recently spent a week in Manila, Philippines, for work. At dinner one night one of our local hosts told me that due to the bad traffic in Manila, there are restrictions on when you can drive cars with license plates ending in certain numbers.

“The Unified Vehicular Volume Reduction Program (UVVRP), commonly called number coding or color coding, is a road space rationing program in the Philippines that aims to reduce traffic congestion, in particular during peak hours, by restricting the types of vehicles that can use major public roads based on the final digit of the vehicle’s license plate.” –Wikipedia

The following table shows which plate number endings are barred from traveling in Metro Manila:

Day of Week Plates Ending In
Monday 1,2
Tuesday 3,4
Wednesday 5,6
Thursday 7,8
Friday 9,0

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. It logically seems that people will carpool or take public transportation on the days they are prohibited from driving. When I asked our host how this changed his commute, he said “It’s simple – I have six cars”. Two are for him to get where he needs to go, two are for his wife to get where she needs to go, and two are for fun, because he’s a car lover.

Anyone can think through the first-order consequences. It takes talent and time to think through the second and third-order consequences.

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  • Jeff Rosenbaugh February 27, 2017 at 10:02 pm

    Hahahaha… I love unintended consequences, whether their second order or otherwise. It’s so frustrating to see such smart people completely fail to think about these things.