The term “Cobra Effect” originated during the time of the British rule of colonial India.
The British government wanted to tackle the worrying number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. Their strategy was to offer a bounty for every dead cobra.
Creating this incentive was initially a successful strategy—many rewards were claimed and the number of cobra snakes spotted in Delhi started to decrease.
However, the number of dead cobra snakes presented to the bounty office for the reward kept on rising. Why?
Turned out, enterprising people had started breeding cobra snakes to get the bounty.
The government became aware of the scheme, and stopped offering the reward for dead cobra snakes.
As a result, the cobra breeders set the now worthless animals free, increasing the cobra population in Delhi. This anecdote shows that the apparent solution to a problem can make a situation even worse.
For example, a similar incident happened in Hanoi, Vietnam, under the French colonial rule.
The regime created a bounty programme that offered a reward for each rat killed. To collect the reward, people had to provide the severed tail of a rat.
However, officials began noticing rats with no tails in Hanoi. The rat catchers would capture the animals, severe their tails, then release them back so that they could procreate and produce more rats, therefore increasing the potential revenue from the bounty programme.
Another example is the “Hoy No Circula” policy that was launched in Mexico City, prohibiting the circulation of a fifth of the vehicles in the city from Monday to Friday, based on the last digit of their license plates.
Because the policy coincided with a massive influx of cheap cars in the country, people started buying more cars with different licence plates in order to circumvent the policy.
This archetype captures the common tendency of decision makers, when faced with a problem, to apply a ‘fix’ that reduces the strength of the problem.
While it seems to work in the first instance, the fix fails in the long run because it has an unexpected outcome that amplifies the problem.
Have you ever tried to fix a problem, only to make things worse? That’s called the Cobra Effect—when an attempted solution results in unintended consequences.
Because most of our cause-to-effect experiences involve very simple, direct relationships, we tend to think in terms of linear chain of events. But the world is much more complex than we realise.
In a real-world system, there will be multiple reinforcing and balancing connections between events, resulting in often unpredictable feedback loops.