Tag Archives: crime

The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again

Of all the laws of economics, the law of unintended consequences is probably the most self-explanatory: ‘that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended’. Whilst it is applied mostly to government regulations and legislation, the rest of the world knows this law simply as ‘when shit goes wrong for all the right reasons’.

Just a few examples:

Stranger Danger

Remember that movie ‘Kindergarten Cop’, where the primary school kiddies played an instrumental role in stopping the baddie, the ‘stranger’? Although crime rates these days can’t be any worse than they were in the previous centuries, our fears of ‘The Stranger’ are. Hence the strict childhood instructions: ‘don’t talk to strangers’.

But strangers can be helpful, and like that other saying they dish out in high school to make you more sociable: ‘Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.’ When an 11-year-old Utah boy scout went missing in rugged terrain, he stayed lost for four days, hiding from strangers whom he had been taught ‘not to talk to’, predictably some of whom were search volunteers or other hikers who would’ve been able to help him.

Car accidents

Regulations in the 1960s to improve safety design inside cars (internal airbags, safety belts, padded dashboards) actually resulted in higher rates of car accidents. Why? Because the costs of crashing (bodily injury) had decreased, people could therefore afford to drive more recklessly.

Carbon leakage.

Countries that want to slow down global warming by reducing carbons emissions must impose a carbon price or tax on businesses as well as invest in renewable energy. While this is a positive step forward for the environment, in the short-term it certainly increases the costs of doing business. An unintended consequence is that businesses will move their production operations overseas, to countries that don’t wish to act on climate change and hence don’t have taxes on pollution. The outcome is that the economy of the environmentally responsible country is worse off and carbons emissions is not necessarily any lesser, albeit burning through a different part of the ozone layer (still not a good reason to avoid target commitments and the carbon tax though.)

Economists argue that perhaps that these consequences can actually often be anticipated, assuming that people act rationally and events therefore unfold in a rational manner. Through the lens of economics, rational behaviour is classified as that which best maximises self-interest, by only taking actions that yield higher benefit relative to cost. Emotional benefits and costs are entirely separate.

But today I want to bring to your attention a piece of legislation called the Castle Doctrine*.

Pretend for a moment that you are a U.S. lawmaker in the state of Montana. The chances of an ordinary citizen becoming a victim of violent crime is 1 in 367. You have a grand plan to protect these citizens by empowering them to protect themselves. To do this, you vote to pass a bill that allows citizens to use deadly force against unlawful intruders to their homes, without fear of later persecution. The homeowner must of course have reasonable evidence of danger to his or her life. You go home satisfied that your work has made America a safer place (oh, and your campaign sponsorship is most likely being funded by the gun lobbying industry.)

What do you think will happen?

Well ideally, and I’m sure the U.S. lawmaker is an idealist; potential criminals would be deterred from committing violent crime as the consequences could be fatal. After all, thieves too must weigh up the costs and benefits before each robbery. Assuming they act on the greed motive and not out of personal vindictiveness, the benefit will be his/her profit gained, and the cost will be his/her chances of being caught, and the punishment if s/he is caught.

A-ha. But what if the citizen starts thinking: ‘Well, I probably only have a 50/50 chance of being killed if an intruder enters my home. But since I don’t have to worry about going to jail if I shoot, and I still have a 50 percent chance of danger, I’d best shoot anyway.’ In economic terms, here you see the costs of resorting to deadly self-defense have dropped: these being arrest, imprisonment or even the death penalty (yes, that too exists in Montana still.)

Regrettably it seems that here in Montana the law of unintended consequences is the winner of the day (and the gun companies! Don’t forget the gun companies). It isn’t that the concern of legal repercussions would stop anyone from resorting to whatever means of self-defense they possess in a truly dire life-or-death situation. The point is that because of this added guarantee, anyone who owns a gun or other deadly weapon of force will much more likely take a risk on a situation that could’ve turned out to be harmless after all, or at least non-deadly.

An increased liberalness to use force can turn easily into careless, senseless violence, justified by ‘I thought he was gunna kill me, legit I swear.’ It could turn into a licence to kill.

While writing this post gives me a chance to roll my eyes and say sardonically ‘only in America’, the following question begs attention: if this sort of behavior is so rational, then why do policy makers get it wrong time and again?

Any intervention in an umbrella system, particularly social action with a specific purpose, can often fail to take into account the complexity of the human race – and so misjudge the reactions. What is rational at any given point in time may not be too obvious until after the fact. For example, when we are offered incentives that change the balance between relative benefit and cost, (such as a guarantee against persecution) it makes sense that we might come down on a different decision. University of Melbourne lecturer Mike Pottenger writes concisely and pithily about the unintended consequences of perverse incentives.

What do I mean by the complexity of our choices? We could be swayed by our emotions and feelings (definitely not rational). Conflicts of interest (e.g. money vs. health) might drive us to choose one over the other, and depending on which one the policy aims to target, this might be considered as an unintended consequence. We could end up valuing short-term interests over long-term gains (the opposite to delayed gratification, which is what you’re meant to train your dog). Really, we’re all just animals responding to reward incentives, wagging our tails to the promise of a juicy bone.

Much of politics is trial and error – just when we think we’ve got the answer, someone with too much testosterone will fuck up abuse your Castle Doctrine, or some smartass will find a way to pervert the rules. (When the Bangkok police force made offenders wear tartan armbands they were treated as badges of honour, so they changed it a Hello Kitty armband instead.) Maybe what the law of unintended consequences really does is teach us humility: to remind us that we can’t ever have our own way with the universe. Human complexity has a way of defying rationality, and has its own rules to keep.

*Castle Doctrine: based on the saying ‘a man’s home is his castle’, the notion of inviolable rights within your own home. Even if one man’s right to self-defense might deprive another man’s right to live.

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Trust in the Hoodie: the Morality of Clothes

Even though it’s part of our ordinary routine, we know that our choices in dressing each morning can be significant. Shirt-and-tie attire is essential for just about any professional job interview. The wrong shoes can get you barred from a nightclub.

But when do the clothes we put on our back become an agent of distrust and crime? For Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager who was shot in the street by a neighbourhood watch captain in February, the answer is this: when you’re wearing a hoodie.

But you say: of course it isn’t as simple as that. You can’t blame the guilt of an overzealous, racist patrol guard on a jumper for godssake. Perhaps not, but judging from public reactions in the months following the tragedy, Martin brought to our attention that many others identify with the discomfort generated by this single article of clothing.

As attorney and talk-show host Geraldo Rivera explains:

People look at you and what’s the instant association? It’s those crime scene surveillance tapes. Every time you see someone stickin’ up a 7-11, the kid’s wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie.

What we see in the media also reinforces this psychology – who was even a little surprised that the primary suspect for ABC employee Jill Meagher’s rape and murder was known everywhere as the ‘man in blue hoodie’?

This is ironic of course because the hoodie is supposed to defy association. Walking down the street wrapped in a hoodie you can enjoy a little extra anonymity (or just warmth). The trade-off is that you risk being labeled as an anti-social troublemaker. By choosing to cover part of your head, you cannot be identified from the back. Your face has become hooded, so it follows that your character also becomes slightly shadier to a stranger’s eye. But can we apply this rationale to other articles of clothing?

In particular, I’m talking about the inherent suspiciousness of the hijab (women’s headscarf), and let’s not even get started on the burqa. That Muslims everywhere are, at this current moment in time, unfortunately associated with al-Qaeda extremists and terrorism only adds to the general untrustworthiness of the religious garment. An Anglo schoolgirl experimented with wearing the hijab for a few hours, and the reaction she got was astoundingly negative.

You have to step back for a moment and remember that this is just a piece of fabric. It doesn’t contain any dark magic and it’s not a weapon of mass destruction. But thanks to our basic psychology with some help from reflexive social associations, the trust bank is severely anaemic.

Let’s first explore the psychology of trust. Intuitively, we distrust those who cover their faces. This isn’t so hard to understand. Our faces are our most honest feature: eyes are a window to the soul, facial muscles give away the lie, and blushing means you’re embarrassed. More importantly, your face is the most seen, and therefore the most identifiable part of you.

So trusting someone clearly depends a lot on how well you can identify him/her. How about their reputation? Well, studies show that the known reputation of someone might not matter as much as you’d think. Researchers from Darmouth University found that people are more likely to trust someone whose face ‘is generally perceived as trustworthy, even when they are given negative information about this person’s reputation’. I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘trustworthy’ face and where can I buy one? Who even knew there was such a standard of measure? I can only guess that bigger eyes and upwardly curved lips constitute trustworthy faces, while highly arched eyebrows and a bigger mouth (for bullshitting) do not.

It’s hard not to feel depressed about the findings of these studies, or ‘trust games’ as they call it. Not only are we really freaking dumb (or just shallow) when it comes to trusting strangers , but we might just have been born with a shifty face and it’s really not my fault officer!

Similar experiments have tried harder to identify exactly what features we are most predisposed to trust. The results from the University of Aberdeen suggest that we are more inclined to trust those who resemble us physically. Um, who invited Narcissus to the party? Participants’ level of trust increased by almost 25 percent towards faces digitally tweaked in a way that increased resemblance to their own appearances – in other words, the sibling you never had.

This hypothesis works – if you trust yourself.

After all, all this dabbling in psychological games is only useful if we can respond appropriately to what our subconscious is telling us. Distrust is but an instinct, the inner roar of the primitive beast within that cares only for survival. Pinky promises and contracts signed in blood mean nothing if you, in your heart of hearts, don’t feel the trust.

Luckily we have experts around the world who make up special terms to help us to understand. Distrust serves a valuable risk-gauge function if we listen to it properly. By that, I mean that we must learn to separate dysfunctional distrust from functional distrust. It is rational to maintain a certain level of distrust towards unfamiliar people and situations in order to protect us from harm. Even when acquaintanceship has been formed, nay, even in intimacy, it would be wise to not throw out your own sense of criticality. This is based on the assumption that all rational beings act in self-interest, and that these interests change reactively and over time. A modicum of distrust now stops you from spilling tears over faults of misjudgment later.

On the other hand, obviously there is such a thing as too much, and distrust isn’t something you want to have too much of. If this is you though, you’re probably being set back by dysfunctional distrust. The danger of this? Well, it’s the induced hostility and paranoia of dysfunctional distrust that leads to hypervigilance and the deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin.

So are you damned if you do, damned if you don’t? I have no simple answers for you. Trust and judgment clearly go hand in hand, yet the consequences of each can sometimes be irreversible. But in most cases with some luck, humility and forward thinking you’ll be able to bounce right back. Hopefully this post has made you question whether you really can trust your neighbor, stranger, brother, or indeed yourself. I hope you can – hoodie wearer or not.

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