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Unintended consequences

Merton, R.K. (1936) The unanticipated consequences of purposive social actiom. American Sociological Review

Bernardez, M. (2017) Breaking (down) the law of unintended consequences: systemic cause analysis. Social & Organizational Performance Review

Robert K. Merton

Nassim Taleb

Mariano Bernardez

In his 1936 paper “The Unanticipated consequences of Social Action”[1], Sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term “the law of unintended consequences” to describe negative impacts generated by well-meaning and progressive human action when any of five conditions were present: ignorance of the consequences, error in anticipating the consequences, immediate (or self-) interest in consequences other than planned , basic values opposing the solution or a self-defeating prophecy – a defensive reaction to a prediction of an unavoidable result –a candidate’s sure victory-, provoking the opposite consequence –low voter turnover giving an unexpected victory to the underdog[2]-.

[1] (Merton, 1996)

[2] That was exactly what happened with the unexpected reelection of likely loser Harry Truman in 1948 –when Republicans preferred to stay home and follow the results, confident that Thomas Dewey’s victory was unavoidable, and with Marx’s prediction of capitalism’s self-destruction, that spurred trade unions into reforming and –paradoxically- saving it, according to Merton (Merton, 1996)

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