Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Faith Works 2-19

Faith Works 2-19-11

Jeff Gill


The Law of Unintended Consequences



In dealing with human persons, when you try to make them do a certain thing, even a good or better choice (maybe even especially then), they have a tendency to shoot off in an unexpected direction.


Under the umbrella of policy and politics, that phenomenon is known as "the law of unintended consequences." Trying to get people to do what you want them to do doesn't always work out the way you think.


One reason for this is that the decision makers and rule creators often are already doing the thing they want to see others do, and so assume that a small disincentive is all it takes to nudge people their way . . . since obviously, everyone would want to live the way they do, and those who don't are simply misinformed or wrongly influenced by some external factor.


What results isn't what's expected because human creatures are much more complicated than that. In faith circles generally and Christianity in particular, we call it sin, but we don't always try to empathize, to think from within the decisions and behaviors, often for fear that this will appear to be "giving in" to sin or excusing it. Call it "sympathy for the devil," as Mr. Jagger did, and church people tend to shy away.


But here's what happens when you don't try to share your good news, in a specific area, without trying to imagine what people are actually thinking from the inside. Not long ago, Ohio passed with great righteousness, a "DUI license plate" law which gives some folks yellow vehicle tags with red lettering  (nice touch, the scarlet letters). The idea was: if you see other people having to wear this mark of shame on the roads, others will then be less likely to drive drunk.


I've read conflicting studies on the outcome so far of that law, but the unintended consequence has been that, in certain circles, the plates have become a badge of honor. Some in law enforcement quietly worry that getting the yellow plates has become a goal for some.


Ditto the perfectly reasonable consequence for an assortment of offenses of withdrawing driver's licenses. It makes sense, and I really don't want to argue against it, but traffic cops tell me in some areas, when you pull over vehicles, as many as two out of three have some kind of issue with their license (none, canceled, suspended) or registration . . . or an outstanding warrant.


That's not two of three of all drivers on the road, but when around two-thirds of those you pull over are in that situation, you have to wonder in general. So how's that "suspended license" thing working out?


Which brings me to a pair of stories this week, unrelated in essence, but closely tied in how I read the law of unintended consequences applying. One was a suggestion that we "drug test" recipients of public assistance. Gosh, on one level, that sounds so reasonable. I can hear lots of good, upstanding citizens thinking, at home with their coffee on a Saturday morning, "Why not?"


The other is the move by a county school district to effectively ban sweets and sugary treats in the classroom. Food allergy issues were raised, but they're actually a very small element in the outline and impact of this plan. The point is to help kids make better choices about food, allow parents to control their kids' caloric and nutritional intake, and promote healthy eating.


One is proposed, the other about to be implemented, and both, I believe, assume that a nudge will cause most people to shift behaviors in a better direction. Both, I believe, are seriously misguided and are likely to cause . . . unintended consequences. I think both plans show a clear lack of consideration of why people make the choices they do, and how to motivate people to want to make better choices.


In faith community discussions, mission-minded activity should always start with trying to understand the population you're trying to reach, on their terms. Only then can you truly enter their world and offer clearly the message you feel called to carry.


Why do people struggling economically choose to spend precious resources on drugs (or alcohol, or cigarettes, both legal but costly choices)? Why do parents send sugary snacks to school for their children and their classmates? Hint on the latter: it's not for the sugar, it's usually the simplest and easiest and most popular choice. On the former: let's think about it, shall we? Before we nod approvingly at a policy option that could create more problems than it solves.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; yes, he sent cupcakes to school for his son's birthday in years past - lock him up now. Tell him your nutritional sins at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.