Cobra Effect

During the British rule of India, venomous cobras plagued Delhi. The government offered a bounty per dead cobra to reduce the snake population, but the plan backfired: Enterprising people began to breed cobras to kill them and earn the bounty money. When the government caught wind of this, they dropped the bounty program, and the breeders released their cobras into the street, exacerbating the problem.

Similar tragedies occurred with rats in Vietnam, poppies in Afghanistan, and feral pigs in Georgia. It’s almost like government-sponsored massacres are a bad idea…

Sadly, ill-conceived population control isn’t the only scheme afflicted by the Cobra Effect. Less tragic occurrences are ubiquitous in modern society. Whenever a metric drives the wrong behavior, perverse incentives are at play.

Measuring the lines of code written per day is a ridiculous metric for assessing the productivity of a software team, as it incentivizes developers to write inefficient functions. Or funding fire departments based on the number of calls they receive could incentivize arson.

Here be cobras!

Metrics drive behavior, so ensure you measure the right thing. To avoid the Cobra Effect:

  1. Use simple incentives. Don’t create complex systems because complexity leads to loopholes, and loopholes lead to perverse incentives.
  2. Get sneaky. When creating a metric, imagine all the twisted behaviors it could drive. Try to “Black Mirror” yourself by picturing the unplanned consequences of this new incentive.

What gets measured gets done—for better or for worse.