Unintended Consequences

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, cockpit doors were strengthened and locked.  The intention was to keep the bad guys out of the cockpit.

Last week, a GermanWings pilot intentionally crashed his plane into a mountainside in France.

Who knew that one of the bad guys was going to be flying the plane?

Unintended consequences.


Fifty years ago, NFL players played football without helmets, or with flimsy leather headgear.  Over the years, helmet technology has improved, and now football players play with helmets that are designed to thoroughly protect the head.  Yet there have never been so many head injuries in football.  Why is that?

One of the unintended consequences of putting on helmets is that players now lead with their heads.  On every play, offensive and defensive linemen smash each other in the heads.    If you add up the number of head collisions that players experience in pee-wee football, high school football, college football, and then professional football, it’s possible that some players experience 10,000 head collisions in their career.

Football has a concussion problem.  It looks like a situation of unintended consequences.


If you take any medication, read the package insert.  Go past the pharmacology section, and the indications, and you’ll find a section entitled “Adverse Reactions”.  You think of them as side effects.

They are unintended consequences.

No one ever takes a medication with the intent of experiencing a side effect.  But it happens a lot.  Check out the percentages of adverse reactions in a package insert.


Unintended consequences happen in other areas too.  Like in our personal lives.  It is such a common theme that it is baked into our language.  “I didn’t sign up for this”.  It means that we have unintended consequences in our relationships, and from our behavior.

I have a running conversation with several people around the theme of “I didn’t sign up for this”.  What we mean, and what our conversations are about, are those unintended consequences of relationships- death, despair, sometimes divorce.

I wonder how often Theresa looks at me and thinks “I didn’t sign up for this”?


Have you ever seen a TV commercial where two young people enter an elevator, experience an immediate attraction to each other, and then they have a “flash forward” experience where they see the next 50 years of their lives together?

They always leave the elevator quickly, without speaking to each other again.


We have another sentence in our language- “be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it”.  That’s another aspect of unintended consequences.  I want something, and at the same time, I don’t realize that it isn’t good for me.


I spend a lot of time thinking about predictions.  My work involves making predictions.  So does my life.  Yours life does too.

Where will you work?  How much money do you need for retirement?  How long will you live?  Where will you live?  What will your future look like?

There is a good book about making predictions, called “The Signal and the Noise”, by Nate Silver.  It is about making predictions in areas like financial markets, mortgage markets, weather forecasting, baseball statistics and earthquakes.

One of the things he says is that it helps to have a lot of historic data if you’re making predictions.  He notes that it is easier to predict baseball outcomes, because there are thousands of records of baseball games, and lots of statistics.  It isn’t so easy to predict earthquakes, because there aren’t that many of them.

How do I predict human relationships, when I haven’t had many of them?


By the way, not all unintended consequences are bad.  I asked a lovely young lady for her phone number at a party in 1985.  I had no intention of marrying her.  I just wanted her phone number.

But I’m glad I asked her.  It’s working out well so far.



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