Without getting into too many details, the saga of my broken air conditioner has me pondering unintended consequences. (It’s fixed now, thankfully.)
I saw an article in the New York Times that shared a statistically significant difference pre and post-pandemic in the number of near-sighted second graders. 13% developed nearsightedness in 2019 vs. 20% in 2020.
Meanwhile, another study in 2018 found that being outside for just a few hours a day helped reduce the risk of nearsightedness in children. The Times article proposed that one unintended consequence of virtual learning was less time spent outdoors, which consequently caused an uptick in nearsightedness among 2nd graders. Incidentally, time spent in nature isn’t just a nice thing people can do. In fact, a lack of outdoor activities is thought to be linked to the development of certain psychiatric disorders and obesity. Coined ‘nature deficit disorder,’ it’s clear that we are just beginning to understand the effects of our predominantly inside, sedentary lifestyle.
Here’s another interesting fact, only children and oldest children are most prone to developing allergies. Over 30 different studies worldwide have shown that subsequent siblings are far less likely to develop allergies, eczema, and asthma. In addition, children raised on farms are much less likely to develop those same autoimmune disorders.
What do having siblings and being raised on a farm have in common?
Greater exposure during infancy to a number of environmental triggers from bacteria to viruses, to plants, to animals.
So, continuing the theme of unintended consequences, most parents of highly allergic kids choose to keep them inside during peak allergy seasons, avoiding all that pollen from grasses and trees to avert allergy flare-ups. That means far less time outdoors, which, as we now know, can increase the propensity for nearsightedness.
The data seems to indicate that nearsighted adults with allergies weren’t born with the DNA fating them to nearsightedness and allergies. Imagine if their Mom had made a different career choice, raising trees on a farm, for instance, or they’d been born a middle child instead of an oldest, perhaps they’d have perfect vision and no allergies.
(Now they’re middle children, though, and take it from me, that is its own challenge!)
It’s like dominos, except we never know what the consequence will be.
Take prohibition as another fascinating study in unintended consequences. When the sale of alcohol was prohibited in the US in 1920, experts predicted a boom in other industries where the money previously spent on alcohol would be diverted, things like consumer goods, real estate, and entertainment. Didn’t happen. It turns out the federal government in the first year lost out on $11 billion from excise taxes on liquor sales alone. Crime increased. Saloons went underground, becoming speakeasies. At the end of the day, nobody benefited because the people who drank alcohol didn’t stop. They just became lawbreakers.
My favorite unintended consequence of prohibition was the marked increase in the number of people who became rabbis. Why? Because wine was allowed for religious purposes only.
Not all unintended consequences are harmful at all. Unexpected benefits of our choices are just as prevalent. For instance, an unexpected benefit of the Covid pandemic quarantine and sheltering policies resulted in the greater flexibility of our workspaces which has permanently changed the way many of us work. Many workers enjoy greater work/life balance from working in home offices, either full-time or with a hybrid schedule.
My examples were of some big, broadly observable ramifications, but the law of unintended consequences (and benefits) is actively at work in every one of our lives. Everything is important, but usually never in the way we think.
While we can never predict unintended consequences, this is a reminder of how much power we have to affect the people and the world around us. The seemingly inconsequential choices we make reverberate in ways and in areas that we could never imagine. The smallest acts of mercy and kindness can literally change the trajectory of someone’s life.
So, let the lady with one item go ahead of you at the checkout line.
Let in the guy trying to merge into your lane.
Look for opportunities to share.
Make amends whenever you can.
While usually we never get to see the long-term results of our small choices, they still matter. Small acts of goodwill are never small—they have the power to change the world. More than we will ever know.