the cobra effect

a solution that worsens the problem


cobra effect = Verschlimmbesserung (Phänomen, dass Maßnahmen, die getroffen werden, um ein bestimmtes Problem zu lösen, dieses auch verschärfen können)



“Mitigating THE COBRA EFFECT when Pursuing Organizational Resilience"

Dr. Sa'id Zighan — Research Article, University of Petra (18th April 2023)

“The liquidity ‘collapse’ is a modern-day COBRA EFFECT”

The Financial Times — Opinion headline (6th April 2020)

Did you

cobra effect
colloquial noun-phrase

- when an intended solution makes the original problem worse

- the situation where an attempted solution has an unintended consequence that makes the original problem worse

Collins Dictionary / Wiktionary


The term "cobra effect" has its roots from the time of colonial rule in India. The British government was concerned about the large number of cobras in Delhi and offered a bounty for every dead cobra.

Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for extra income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was abolished, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased.

The apparent solution for the problem had made the situation even worse.


A classic example of the Cobra Effect can be seen in Mexico City's Hoy No Circula (No-Drive Days) policy. Introduced in 1989, the aim of this policy was to combat severe air pollution by restricting each vehicle from being driven one day per week, based on the last digit of its license plate. The government believed this would lead to a 20% reduction in car emissions as 20% fewer cars would be on the roads each weekday.

However, in practice, the policy had an opposite and undesired effect. Many people simply bought an additional, often older and more polluting, car to use on their no-drive day. So instead of reducing the number of cars on the road and improving air quality, the policy led to an increase in the total number of cars, including many that were less environmentally friendly. As a result, Mexico City's air pollution problem wasn't mitigated; in fact, it actually became worse.

So, in a twist of irony, the policy meant to clear the skies actually ended up clouding them even more - a classic case of good intentions fueling the fire instead of extinguishing it.

SMUGGLE OWAD into an English conversation, say something like:

“Beware THE COBRA EFFECT where the best-laid plans can turn into a snake-pit of complications.”

THANKS again to Peyman for suggesting today's OWAD.

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