Cobra Effect

Bharat Kalluri / 2020-10-03

The back story

When the British government was ruling India, The British government was concerned about the number of venomous snakes in Delhi. So they offered a bounty to people who were able to kill cobras. The scheme was simple, people were given a bounty on every cobra they kill. They were expected bring the dead cobra as proof and collect the reward. Initially all went well and the cobra number began to decrease. But then people realized they could earn money if they killed more cobras. So instead of killing them, people started breeding cobras. After a while the British government realized what happened and scrapped the program. Since there was no incentive to maintain all the bred cobras, these people led the cobras free. And this in-turn increased the wild cobra population. This is where the term originated.

The cobra effect occurs when an attempted solution to the problem ends up making the problem worse.

Occurances in day to day life

The cobra effect is much more common than you think in real life. We need to be very careful when we design a system to make sure the system does not give incentive to do the exact opposite.

  • The same story of what happened in delhi happened in France. The government placed a bounty on rats and asked for rat tails as proof, people started to cut tails from rats and send them back in to the sewers to collect money using the tails.
  • Another well documented case is from Mexico, where they had a policy prohibiting the circulation of a fifth of the vehicles. The rules for circulation were based on the day of the week and the last digit on the number plate. People ended up buying cheap cars to circumvent this rule and in turn the pollution raised
  • An Example which is happening as I am writing this (Oct 2020), Digital ocean set up a event called Hacktober fest. In which it gives out a free T Shirt to every developer who can make four PR's (code changes) to any open source project on github. This is on paper a good idea and encourages people to jump into open source. But people started making very minor useless changes to open source projects in the hope of getting a free T-Shirt. Instead of the fest making the open source community better, in turn caused a ton of useless PR's which overwhelmed the maintainers of these projects and thereby caused a lot of open source maintainer frustration and burnout. The exact opposite of what they intended.
Hand crafted by Bharat Kalluri