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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Cobra effect

(n.) a well-intentioned solution that only proves to make a problem worse

German famously has a word for everything, and pointing out some of its most striking words always proves popular. Case in point, the word Verschlimmbesserung—a German word for a “degenerating improvement,” or an intended solution that only proves to make something worse.

But this is one of those words that English actually has equivalent: the cobra effect.

The story behind this term is an anecdote of managerial short-sightedness from the days of British rule in colonial India. According to the tale, the British government were so alarmed by the high population of venomous snakes on the Indian subcontinent that they introduced a hunters’ bounty, rewarding a cash prize to anyone who could present a dead cobra to their nearest British colonial office. The scheme worked for a time, until the local population—having grown up with the snakes, and so having developed no reason to be quite so fearful of them as the Brits—began farming and breeding cobras in colossal numbers just so that they could claim ever larger cash prizes.

Far from solving the colonists’ problems, ultimately, the ploy led to a boom in the local snake population, only serving to worsen the British woes.

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