The Ouroboros Effect: 
The Revenge Effects of
Unintended Consequences
a compilation by 
David X. Swenson Ph.D.
The origin of the Ouroboros symbol (serpent devouring its own tail) can be traced to ancient Egypt and China, Norse mythology, Medieval Europe, and into modern times. It has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but here represents the cyclic and interactive nature of events. More specifically, it reflects how some of our best attempts to solve problems comes back to bite us!

Solutions to problems are usually intended as final fixes, but more often than not, while solving one problem, they generate more problems. In some cases the new problems from the intended solution are bigger, worse, or more complicated than the original problem; in other cases, the intended solution feedsback into the original problem and simply exacerbates it. The German word, verschlimmbessern, can be interpreted as "to fix something more broken," or to worsen through attempts to make better. These unintended consequences have been called "revenge effects" and are largely a function of limited scope in problem strategy conceptualization: most problem solving deals only with the problem (as defined) at hand, and does not consider the long term effects, ripple and spin-off effects (contingencies), or feedback effects in a larger system. The examples I have collected below present a variety of revenge effects that might have been prevented by taking a more systemic view of the situation.



Examples of Systemic Backfires


In summary, the problems and crises described above were approached with the best intentions and highly skilled people, but the effect the approach to problem solving had devastating effects. In most cases, problems occur because the "problem" was too narrowly defined and the spin-off consequences and systemic reactions to change were not fully anticipated. In other cases, the system has become so complex that it is very difficult to consider the outcome of various parts interacting to produce unexpected consequences. To minimize these problems, consider the following:


Links



References

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Death by decree, (2001, Sept.). Consumer Research, 84(9), 10-13.

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Little, C. (May-June, 1993). Smokey's revenge, American Forests, 99(5-6), 24-25, 58-60.

Nadler-Nir, R. (February 3, 2001). The e-postman never rings. The Media Toolbox. URL: http://www.mediatoolbox.co.za/new/aspen_viewartaspen.dll?Aid=634&temp=12

Norton, R. (August 19, 1996). Why airbags are killing kids. Fortune.

Nowak, R. (September 2, 2000). Leave well alone: Misguided amateurs are driving frogs to extinction. New Scientist. URL: http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns225442

Radetsky, P. (1998, November). Last days of the wonder drugs. Discover, 19(11).

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Tenner, E. (1997). Why things bite back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences.

Wegner, D. M., & Schneider, D. J., Carter, S.R.III, & White, T.L., Paradoxical Effects of Thought
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last updated 1-1-02
David X. Swenson Ph.D.
dswenson@css.edu