The Law of Unintended Consequences


Robert K. Merton (1936) was responsible for many other sociological ideas captured in phrases that became widely used in ordinary conversation. A further example is the now famous Law of Unanticipated Consequences.

Much of Merton’s analytic work focused on both consequences of action that were not anticipated by the actor. Adumbrations of the idea of unanticipated consequences can be traced far back in time, at least to the Scottish Enlightenment, and one can find anticipations of the idea in Joseph Schumpeter’s work, for example, but it was Merton in the mid-20th century that systematically analyzed and classified types and determinants of unanticipated consequences of purposive action. There are positive unanticipated benefits, which we have seen repeatedly as part of serendipity, or serendipitous discoveries in science; there’s Murphy’s Law type unanticipated consequences: “What Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong”; and there are perverse effects that result in the opposite of what was intended. Merton identified five principle causes of unanticipated consequences: ignorance; error; immediate interest which neglects consideration of longer term, and potentially, negative consequences, basic values that may enjoin us not to act in certain ways, despite the likelihood of the actions producing unanticipated, negative consequences; and self-defeating prophecy, in which people do not take action because they fear negative and unanticipated consequences.

A good example, if true, can be found in the popular book Freakonomics, in which Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argue that an unanticipated consequences of the Rove v. Wade (1973) abortion decision was a sharp reduction in crime in the 1990s.

Related Posts

Share This