The cobra effect is a term that describes when an intervention is intended to solve a problem, but in fact, actually contributes to making the problem worse. In this post, we will discuss the origin of the Cobra effect, its implication, and some examples. Read on.

What is the Cobra Effect?

The cobra effect is a phenomenon that occurs when a policy intended to solve a problem actually makes it worse or even creates an entirely new problem. The cobra effect can also be said to be when people are incentivized to make the problem worse, usually by a government.

For example: let’s say you’re trying to combat the growing rat population in your city by offering residents a cash reward for every rat’s tail they bring you. The goal is to reduce the overall number of rats, but instead, the residents realize that it’s easier and more profitable to breed rats than to hunt them down, so they start breeding rats increasing the rat population and exacerbating the issue.

Read: Barnum Effect in Research: Meaning & Implications

The cobra effect has been observed in many other situations as well. In Los Angeles, a campaign to trim trees back from power lines led to increased numbers of rats on city streets, because they no longer had anywhere safe to hide. And in Texas, a government program that paid farmers not to grow cotton led them instead to switch crops and increase cotton production.

The primary cause of the cobra effect is over-simplification: if a complex problem is reduced to one factor for purposes of measurement or manipulation, other factors will play a higher role in determining outcomes than expected.

Read: Lurking Variables Explained: Types & Examples

Origins of the Cobra Effect

The phrase “cobra effect” comes from a story about the British colonial government in India. In the early 1900s, when British colonials ruled India, they had a major problem which was cobras.

The British government tried to tackle the problem of venomous cobra snakes by offering a bounty for every dead cobra. In response, enterprising locals started breeding cobras for the income.

When the government became aware of this, they canceled the bounty program which resulted in the cobras being released or let loose into the streets as they were now worthless without the bounty system. To help prevent this from happening again, the British government required that all snakeheads be presented with the skin still attached to prove that they had been freshly killed.

Read: Extraneous Variables Explained: Types & Examples

People began collecting dead snakes from around town and sewing their heads back on before turning them in to get paid. The British were forced to cancel the program altogether, which caused the snake population to return to its previous state and then some.

The term  “cobra effect” was coined in the early 1900s by German economist Horst Siebert

Implications of the Cobra Effect

The cobra effect is often used as an example of unintended consequences. It also highlights why it’s important to think through solutions before taking action and why implementing policies without fully understanding their implications can be disastrous.

In survey research, the cobra effect can pop up when we try to measure something in a way that might cause people to act differently. It could be that we’re just not thinking about how our survey is affecting people’s behavior, or it could be that we’re trying to manipulate people into behaving a certain way (like getting them to say they’re exercising more than they really are). The second case is ethically questionable, but both cases can hurt the quality of our data.

Read: Selection Bias in Research: Types, Examples & Impact

This can have implications for survey research if the researcher is not careful in the research wording and design. It is important that the questions are clear and concise so that the participant knows exactly what you want to know. If they do not, they may answer incorrectly, which could skew your data.

In economics, this effect can occur when a government implements price controls or subsidizes certain goods or services, which can cause an increase in supply or demand for those goods or services. For example, if the government subsidizes housing costs for low-income families, there may be an increased demand for housing that ends up driving home prices higher than they would have been without subsidies.

One example of a modern-day cobra effect is seen in California, where they have a program that gives tax credits to people who buy electric vehicles (EVs). While EVs are good for the environment, they are not so good for the economy. In short, electric cars are expensive to buy and maintain and use electricity that is expensive to generate. EVs also do not last as long as comparable gasoline cars. On top of these disadvantages, individual EV owners get thousands of dollars in tax breaks per car.

Read: Simpson’s Paradox & How to Avoid it in Experimental Research

Effect of the Cobra Effect on Survey Research

In survey research, the issue of lying on surveys can be particularly troublesome for researchers looking to create a statistically accurate picture of an entire population. The cobra effect can be found in any place where people are being asked (or forced) to disclose information that they want to keep secret.

For instance, a researcher conducting a survey about gun ownership might ask participants whether or not they own guns. If those who do own guns are concerned about having their weapons taken away from them by the government, they might underreport their gun ownership to avoid having their guns confiscated.

Conversely, those who don’t own guns might overreport their ownership of firearms. Also, let’s say you wanted to know how many people are using public transportation in your city. You could put up an online survey asking how often people use public transit and include instructions on how to fill out the survey (respondents must say which line they take and how often).

Read: What is Participant Bias? How to Detect & Avoid It

If you do that, your results may be skewed toward people who ride public transit more frequently because those respondents will be most knowledgeable about answering your questions.

In this case, you have created a self-selecting group of respondents who are getting their information from the same source of your survey instead of having respondents who represent all types of public transit riders. This could make your results less representative of the actual population, which violates one of the main rules of good survey data.

Another example could be a government collecting taxes from its citizens: some citizens may avoid paying taxes by providing false information about themselves or their income level.

Read: Research Bias: Definition, Types + Examples

Examples of the Cobra Effect

The cobra effect is a phenomenon in which a solution to a problem creates an unintended and often worse problem.

Examples of the cobra effect include:

  1. In India, British colonial authorities paid a bounty for every dead cobra. This led to an increase in breeding snakes for profit, and the eventual release of the snakes into the wild when they could no longer breed them at a sufficient rate. As a result, the wild cobra population increased dramatically.
  2. In 19th-century Ireland, poor people abandoned their children in public institutions, where they were cared for by the government. At one point, these institutions began paying for every child who was abandoned there. Unfortunately, this caused more and more parents to abandon their children, so then the institution stopped paying. Many families became impoverished because they had been relying on this payment rather than working to support themselves, so they were forced to abandon their children anyway since they couldn’t afford them.
  3. In 19th-century Germany, officials wanted to reduce the number of feral dogs in Berlin. They offered rewards for every dog that was caught and killed. People quickly started catching stray dogs and turning them in for the money but others realized it was much easier just to catch wild dogs and turn them in as strays.
  4. In Chicago, an effort to encourage people to clean up their city led to a program that paid citizens for collecting trash on the street. People learned to collect trash from one neighborhood and deposit it in another. The city had to cancel its program because instead of cleaning up its trash, people were driving around the city moving it from place to place.

How to Avoid the Cobra Effect

There are a few ways to avoid the cobra effect in survey research.

  1. The first step is always to be aware of the possibility that there may be an unexpected side effect to the survey/study you’re running.
  2. A second way to avoid the cobra effect is to have a robust test and repeat process for your surveys. By continually testing and retesting your surveys, you’ll be able to spot any potential issues before they become problems.
  3. The third step is to be clear with your question wording and instructions. There are lots of ways that ambiguous language can lead to unintended consequences in surveys, so be especially careful here
  4. Finally, it may help to use a mixture of different types of questions in your surveys if possible. For example, you might use both multiple-choice and open-ended questions in order to get more accurate information about what your respondents are thinking and feeling.

Conclusion

The cobra effect is when a solution to a problem somehow makes the problem worse or even creates a new problem. The simplest thing to do is to make sure that you don’t incentivize outcomes that are harmful or detrimental to your research study.

But even beyond that, it’s also important to keep in mind how your respondents will act in response to your questions



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