The Law of Unintended Consequences: What is it and Why is it Important?

The law of unintended consequences is the law that sometimes the results are very different from our original intentions. So, what can we do? Learn more in this article!
The Law of Unintended Consequences: What is it and Why is it Important?

Last update: 27 June, 2022

“The flapping of a butterfly’s wings can set off a hurricane in another part of the world.” With this phrase, we can summarize what the law of unintended consequences is all about.

While this theory is used to exemplify chaos theory, it also has psychological connotations. What it means is that, on many occasions, the consequences of a certain action can’t be anticipated. The same goes for events that occur that were not foreseen.

What is the law of unintended consequences?

The law of unintended consequences suggests that, when certain decisions are made, something is often left out of what we believe is going to happen. It’s that margin of uncertainty that doesn’t allow a scenario to be completely foreseen. This occurs because of the complexity of life itself, but also for other reasons, such as changing circumstances.

The relevance of what this law raises is the implicit idea of potential. This means that any decision or project has different scenarios that we can imagine. However, these are modified by different factors, such as time, society, or personalities.

This is a little bit how evolution and movement works. A couple of years ago, nobody imagined that the discovery of a certain fact could lead to others and to the birth of more things. For example, think about the discovery of DNA.

In this sense, unintended consequences can be both positive and negative. They can mean progress or destruction.

Efecto dominó en la ley de las consecuencias imprevistas.

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The origin of unintended consequences

Through functional analysis, Robert Merton, a renowned sociologist, was interested in how data affect structures, causing certain consequences. In this way, he sought to concatenate what we know as means-actions-ends, banishing the idea of linearity.

If A happens, it won’t always lead to B.

In this way, it’s possible to realize that, on numerous occasions, people are committed to achieving certain objectives whose results are far from those anticipated. In this way, it was possible to respond to the tensions and social dysfunction that cause the disorder.

For example, we may think that a certain measure could be advantageous for a social group. However, there’s often a resistance to change that hinders it. Thus, instead of getting a positive outcome, there’s a negative social reaction.

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What to take into account for everyday life

The law of unintended consequences works on small, medium, and large scales. That is to say, it applies in the domestic and work environment, but also at the level of the State, with public policies. Hence, its benefit or danger can affect a greater or lesser number of people.

Although not everything can be foreseen, some of the actions that can be taken into account in order not to lose sight of the effects of the law of unintended consequences are the following:

  • Think in terms of the medium and long term. It’s suggested to project changes in different time scenarios. For example, imagine them in 10 months and 10 years.
  • Talk to different people. This will allow for different perspectives. Often, measures are implemented or decisions are made based on one’s own idea, but the reality of others’ reactions is unknown. Being guided by intersectionality should be imperative in any decision.
  • Employ creative thinking. This involves being able to project scenarios and outcomes in a very different way than expected, with the lens of the least expected. In other words, it’s all about thinking outside the box.
  • Imagine the best and the worst of outcomes. For example, in order to assess the potential harm or benefit of taking a certain action, it’s necessary to evaluate what would happen in the best and worst-case scenarios, scaling the influence of that decision to the maximum.
  • Ask yourself the question of why you’re doing something. Remember and reflect on the original intention. Sometimes, we discover that it’s actually not about altruistic purposes with the social system we want to benefit, but instead for personal, selfish reasons.
  • Ask about the reversibility of the decision. Every time we take a step forward with something, the scenario changes. However, if the result is harmful, we must know if it’s possible to back out.
The law unintended consequences

There’s always a margin

This theory also invites us to put an end to the idea that we’re closed systems. Therefore, even if we believe that all conditions are under control, unforeseen factors arise whenever people intervene.

We’re all influenced by different circumstances and we have different trajectories and experiences. We’re also all affected by emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

That’s why there’s always a margin that we can’t foresee. Our limits must always be guided by ethics and respect for rights in the broadest sense: for people, for ecosystems, for animals.



  • Noguera, J. A. (2003). Robert K. Merton. Papers: revista de sociologia, 161-164.
  • Cataño, Gonzalo (2006). Robert K. Merton. Espacio Abierto, 15(1y2),369-389.[fecha de Consulta 1 de Mayo de 2022]. ISSN: 1315-0006. Disponible en: https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=12215219