• Cobra effect: Where the solution is worse than the problem

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    OFTENTIMES, I tell people—including my students—that the first thing that comes to your mind is wrong. This is to force them to come out with as many solutions with the help of those who will be adversely affected by biased ideas. This approach, however, isn’t readily accepted by command-and-control managers.

    Given this, I should tell you about the cobra effect or the principle of unintended consequences, somewhat popularized by German economist Horst Siebert in a 2001 book with the same title. It should help you understand where I’m coming from.

    The cobra effect comes from an anecdote during the British colonial rule of India. The British government was very much concerned about the number of venomous snakes in Delhi and it offered a reward for every dead one. The program was initially successful, with large numbers of the terrifying serpents killed by the locals for the cash reward. The trouble began when enterprising people began breeding cobras for the reward. When the British colonial masters became aware of this, the reward system was immediately scrapped, prompting the breeders to set the worthless snakes free and thus further increasing the cobra population.

    According to Wikipedia, a similar case happened in Vietnam, where French colonial rulers were fearful of an uncontrolled number of rats, which bring diseases and create disorderliness, among other issues. Like the British in India, the French colonizers established a reward system where people received money in exchange for rat tails. The Vietnamese rat catchers, however, did not kill the rats that they took the tails from. They would set the rodents free instead, to procreate and produce more offspring, and thereby increase the people’s income.

    Experts often refer to the cobra or rat effect to caution people against using rewards to solve a problem, but more importantly to emphasize the fact that many solutions are not well-studied for their unintended consequences.

    How many similar examples can you enumerate that are real and continuing to pester us? The first thing that comes to my mind is the odd-even scheme designed to solve the dreadful vehicular traffic in Metro Manila. Drivers and car owners are required to leave their units in the garage for at least once a week in the hope that they use public transport instead, among others. But did it solve the problem? Because public transport is unreliable, inefficient, unsafe and dirty-looking, the odd-even scheme encouraged people to buy a second car to skirt the ban. Of course, I’m not saying that we should lift the plate ban right away.

    Can we look for inexpensive solutions that require only political will? For one, how many of the colorum buses and jeepneys plying our streets are left plying the roads because their owners are retired military and police officials, influential government officials and operators acting like a Mafia? Check the number of jeepneys and buses that are often with only a handful of passengers and how they clog our roads as their drivers wait for passengers, unmindful that they are blocking the way. Even the phasing out of 15-year old jeepneys is taking too much of the time of those in the government.

    The jeepneys and buses clogging our streets are not the only problem. They’re compounded by the mismanagement of the MRT, LRT and PNR services. Even if there are budget allocations, money is being spent on things like automating ticketing instead of focusing on having safe, highly-maintained rolling stock that serves the majority of the population.

    Could it be that the potential to make something perfect is pushing these nincompoops in government to delay making firm decisions? What is this trick being played on us hapless taxpayers? I’ve scoured the history books and other political texts to find a proper buzzword but have came up empty. Maybe I should go and read humor books instead.

    Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


    Please follow our commenting guidelines.

    1 Comment

    1. A firm decision and political will is the key to solving our problems. I have heard over the radio that we as a country have a lot of laws and most are quite good, with a few revisions here there to make it relevant to the current times. Its the execution and implementation of the law that have issues and those further compounds our problems.

      I was shocked to hear last December that a proposal for a congressional inquiry was proposed due to the disqualification of a film in the recent MMFF. I believe we have more pressing issues at hand to solve the problems in our country and all branches of the government need to focus on those and deliver for the good of the Filipino people.