Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cases of unintended consequences

We are witnessing a case, I believe, of unintended consequences in the world of American football (not to be confused with the rest of the world's view of football, which Americans call soccer). The fundamental question: do football helmets, which were intended to protect the head, actually cause more damage?

Hearken back to the pre-helmet days, when players had no protection at all. The first phase of protection was leather padding that merely sat against the head. This provided some degree of protection, no doubt. Over the years plastic helmets were introduced, with each version offering greater and greater protection.

But the consequence of these actions was that players were able to use their heads more aggressively, which has apparently caused too many cases of head trauma, in one form or another. [This relates to the theory that when more rules are introduced to enhance safety, individuals become more aggressive, thinking that given the added safety, they can take additional risks.]

The question: if players no longer had any helmets, or perhaps ones that were like the first variety, might they actually be better off? They wouldn't want to crash their bare (or barely protected) head into another player's midsection, for example.

Another example is boxing, where the likes of Mohammad Ali suffered from having their heads bashed against many times by opponents whose hands were protected by a well padded gloves.

I recall a movie that showed boxing around the turn of the last century, when bare-fisted boxing was forbidden, but occurred nevertheless. Gloves were being introduced and a boxer was asked something like "would you rather break your hand (without the use of gloves) or your jaw (as the result of an opponent using a glove)?" The boxer pointed out that he was quite fond of eating, so seemed to prefer the sans glove option.

If we were to make gloves illegal and require boxers to fight without them, their fists would no doubt be bloodied by the end of a match. But, would their heads be pummelled to the degree they are today? My guess is they would not.

These, I believe, are examples of ideas that had a great deal of merit at the time, but the consequences that resulted seem to have shown them to have made the situations worse.

Two other examples: in the U.S. cars are required to have break lights at the center of the back window. As I recall, the basis for this was so that if the driver in front of the car immediately in front of you was stopping, you would be alerted by seeing the lights brighten, through the windows of the car in front of you. This sounds like a good idea, until you realize that you do not see those lights (or rarely do). The idea simply doesn't work. And yet, millions of dollars were no doubt spent to retrofit or reengineer cars to accommodate them.

Another: again in the U.S. public men's bathrooms must have urinals that are set lower than normal. Most people believe this is to accommodate young boys; it isn't. It's for handicapped patrons. But, this idea simply doesn't work, and yet the laws remain.

In many cases it is very difficult to project what is going to be the result of our actions, so to criticize those who came up with these ideas would be improper. They made sense at the time. In the case of the sports examples, the intent was to protect the head (football) and hands (boxing); but as a result of the added protection, in both cases the head has suffered.

I have pointed out how the notion of asset-weighted composite returns (for GIPS(R) (Global Investment Performance Standards)) was introduced because it just seemed to make sense to those who framed the rules (in spite of the objections from various parties). But in retrospect, I, as well as many others, believe it's the wrong approach. There are other examples, too, but I won't bother to rehash items that I've previously addressed here on in The Spaulding Group newsletter.

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