The Cobra Effect

Gareth Stevens wonders what lessons can we learn when people try to change things for the better…and not only fail, but make things worse.

In 2003, Barbera Streisand became very alarmed when an aerial photograph of her Malibu beach home was published on an internet website. Subsequently she unsuccessfully attempted to sue Kenneth Adelman at for posting the image believing that it would lead stalkers and crazed fans to seek her out. Before the lawsuit had been filed, only six people had actually downloaded the file, and two of them were Streisand’s attorneys. After the very public lawsuit 420,000 people viewed and downloaded the photograph. Thus the phrase, the Streisand Effect, came into being. It describes the way in which some attempts to lock down information can have exactly the opposite outcome. The Streisand Effect is a subset of the Cobra Effect


Cobras and CFCs

During the British reign in India there was growing concern about the incidence of cobra bites in Delhi. The governor there decided to offer a bounty for every dead cobra submitted to him. At first this worked well and a large number of snakes were killed for the reward. Gradually though business-minded people began to breed cobras for the income. Once it became apparent that this was happening the same Governor abandoned the reward scheme. This caused the cobra breeders to set all their now worthless snakes free. Thus the frequency of bites rose. So the Cobra Effect happens when a proposed solution to a problem has exactly the opposite impact to that intended.

You think we would learn wouldn’t you, but I remember reading not long ago of an international agreement to subsidise the safe disposal of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) ending the same way. Smaller companies started to produce the environmentally harmful gases to attract the subsidy and once the scheme was stopped tons of CFCs were released into the atmosphere to wreak their havoc on the ozone layer. The very strategy that intended to reduce atmospheric harm caused it to increase.

It seems that money is the common culprit amongst a majority of cases of the Cobra Effect. Uri Gneezy, the chair of Behavioural Economics at the University of California ran a simple experiment to try and work out if external monetary incentives could have unintended consequences. Ten kindergartens in Haifa, Israel introduced a fine scheme where if parents were late to pick up their children at the end of an afternoon session they would be asked to pay a fine of around US$10. It turned out that in the day care centres where the fine system was introduced, the incidence of lateness doubled! It seems that the fine itself legitimised the idea of being late and was seen as a thinly veiled overtime fee. Parents were more willing to cough up extra cash rather than have those difficult conversations with individual carers that had previously been inconvenienced by their infrequent lateness.

The tragic fate of the Chinese sparrow

The Cobra Effect can have tragic consequences. One of the first actions of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (1958 -62) was known as The Four Pests Campaign. Mao insisted that the population be put to the task of eradicating rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows. It was argued that sparrows eat rice grains and fruit and were having a severe effect on the country’s crop yield. Before long the Eurasian Tree Sparrow was driven to near extinction in China. Sadly, while it was true that the sparrow did eat rice seeds etc, they also kept crop eating insect populations in check by eating a wide range of species at their larval stage. Although not the singular cause, the demise of the sparrow was a major reason for the subsequent famine that killed over 20 million people.

Taking eggs from an omelette

So why do we continue to get things wrong in this way? The Cobra Effect happens when we implement a strategy or act in a singular way to try and solve a problem which has multiple, often intertwined contributing causes. We get opposite outcomes to those intended, when a simple system tries to regulate a complex one. In some senses political systems are simple, they operate with limited and often only recent and domain-specific information. Political discourse is so often shortsighted and its protagonists want quick-fix solutions and pay little heed to human behaviours and psychology.  Society in contrast is highly complex, ever evolving and it is difficult to solve complicated problems in a globalised world with simple solutions. It is also difficult to plot causal chains across the multiple barriers that artificially separate domains such as psychology, economics, anthropology and ecology. To try to do so is like taking eggs back out of an omelette.

Gove, plastic bottles and cobras

In October 2017 Michael Gove said we must tackle “the rise in plastic bottles entering our waters by making it simpler and easier to recycle and dispose of them appropriately”. Let us suppose that Gove’s suggested reward and return scheme for plastic bottles is yet another example of the cobra effect. It is clear to me that the production of single use plastic products is insane, we just do not want them in the biosphere. By offering a reward for recycling them we are legitimising their existence. Arguably, the effect of any recycling scheme is to convince us that it’s okay to produce and consume that which is to be recycled, but ultimately it encourages the very pollution it seeks to stem.

Monks, charcoal and biodiversity offsetting

The journalist and activist George Monbiot tells us that on the outskirts of Sheffield there is an ancient wood where, 800 years ago, monks of Kirkstead Abbey would produce charcoal for smelting iron. Recently there has been an application to plant a motorway service station in the middle of Smithy Wood that would wipe out half of it and fragment the remainder. Such a development project might have been unacceptable a short while ago had it not been for the environment secretary Owen Paterson’s preoccupation with the idea of biodiversity offsetting. This approach is building a head of steam under the Conservative government and would involve finding an alternative and similarly sized plot of land, ring fencing it and then planting 60,000 trees. Simple, we just replace the ancient wood and its complex ecosystem with regimented rows of similar sized saplings – job done and we can all sleep peacefully knowing we have offset our act of environmental destruction (or recycled the offending plastic product).

Cheats and cobras

There used to be a spoof website called The site offered an infidelity offsetting scheme. How did it work? Well if you had the urge to be unfaithful to your partner, you could pay someone somewhere else to stay faithful to theirs! In one hilarious yet brutal idea, the creators of this website adroitly pointed out the insanity of such schemes.

Knowing about the Cobra Effect can be epiphanous. It is such a simple idea, from which so many lessons can be learned. Without wanting to sound like a platitudinous fridge magnet – we still need to persist to make the world a better and fairer place but we need to do so with deeper wisdom, a wisdom that becomes infinitely more pragmatic when one knows about the dangers of unintended consequences and that takes account of complexity. With every new idea we need to not only ask what it will do but also what it will undo.

Feature picture by Mary E. C. Boutell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In-article picture: Barbera Streisand by Cecil Beaton

Article originally posted at


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