Understanding Trade-offs and Consequences

A side effect is a consequence of a decision that happens in parallel, or in addition to, an intended effect.  For example, the side effect of a drug intended to attack cancer cells is the loss of hair.  Because both the cancer cell and the hair cell are fast-growing, scientists understand that attacking one will inevitably harm the other. 

A decision-maker is faced with a trade-off when the beneficial effects of a proposed intervention must be weighed against the side-effects of that action.  So, continuing the analogy, a cancer patient must understand the trade-off between the intended impact of chemotherapy and its numerous side effects, including nausea and hair loss.

Decision theorists emphasize, too, the deleterious impact of what are called revenge effects.  A revenge effect is evident when an initiated action results not in “side” or parallel consequences, but effect the situation in exactly the opposite direction of that which was intended.  A cancer treatment so harsh that it causes other equally harmful cancers to occur is a revenge effect. 

The old story of the boy who cried wolf is a parable about revenge effects.  By crying wolf, the boy sought attention.  The more he did so, though, the less attention he received, until, ultimately, his sincere cries for help were totally dismissed. So much of our collective wisdom warns of revenge effect:  “You reap what you sow;”  “What goes around, comes around;”  “It’ll just come back and bite you.”