What do Smokey the Bear, Scared Straight, and red light cameras have in common? Among other things they all seem to have, at some point, generated unintended consequences. The law of unintended consequences simply stated is that all human decisions and actions result in unintended and unanticipated results. While these consequences can certainly be positive, more often than not the unintended consequences that we remember are negative and painful.
The Smokey the Bear campaign was designed to prevent forest fires. People were encouraged to be extremely careful in forests thereby eliminating many small fires. However, it seems that these small fires served a purpose. They reduced the available fuel for large forest fires. Nowadays, with so many more trees spared from little fires, we are experiencing forest fires that are extremely difficult to contain and destroy far more trees than were ever destroyed in the pre-Smokey the Bear campaigns. In other words, the unintended consequence of the campaign to prevent fires has caused more fire damage.
Scared Straight was a program developed in the late 1970s to influence teenagers to avoid a life of crime. Teens who had started down that road were taken to prisons where they met with prisoners who described the horrors of prison life. Many of the kids who participated in these programs were “scared straight.” Or so it seemed. In fact, studies have shown that these programs backfired. Teens who participated in the program increased their chances of going to prison by as much as 30%. Although there is no clear explanation as to why this was so, among the suggestions offered is that the bringing together of troubled teens and exposing them to each other, created a competition of sorts where the teens tried to show off their toughness to one another. Regardless of the reason, the unintended consequence of the program was increased prison time.
And then there are red light cameras. Although they are obviously a revenue-generating operation, their rationale is to decrease car accidents. However, when they were first installed, some studies showed that they actually increased car accidents since drivers stopped short when they realized the camera was there. So an initial unintended consequence of this car accident-reducing policy was an increase in car accidents.
Leaders need to pay special attention to the law of unintended consequences. However, this does not mean that they should stop making decisions. Rather, they should be on the lookout for unintended consequences. Good unintended consequences should be taken advantage of at the earliest opportunity, while negative consequences will enable them to make changes before they result in substantial damage.
We see the cost of unintended consequences in this week’s parsha. Reuven, in an attempt to save Yosef’s life, implores his brothers to place him in a pit instead of killing him (37:22). His intention was to save him. However, the law of unintended consequences took center stage. First, Rashi quotes the Gemara in Shabbat (22a) that explains that whereas the pit had no water in it, it did contain scorpions and snakes. Without divine intervention these poisonous creatures would have killed Yosef. This would certainly have been an unintended consequence of Reuven’s life-saving effort. However, when Reuven was away, a different unintended consequence transpired – the brothers sold Yosef into bondage. This certainly undermined Reuven’s plan to save Yosef and return him home safely.
Fortunately, Hashem gets the last word in the story and the ultimate unintended consequence of all the brothers’ actions was that Yosef became the viceroy of Egypt, which set the stage for the realization of his dreams and for the provision of food to save his family.
That the unintended consequences in this story worked out should not obfuscate the need to consider their possibility when making decisions. The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemini) relates how a righteous young man tried to influence his father to stop drinking. Once he saw a drunkard lying in a terrible state on the road being made fun of by children. He immediately took his father to see the sad scene hoping this would inspire him to stay sober. Tragically, the father’s only reaction was to approach the drunk and ask him where he gets such good wine. Talk about unintended consequences.
Leaders who take the time to think about the possible results of their decisions and actions will position themselves to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid the dangers of unintended consequences, thus ensuring that they remain consequential leaders.