When You're Paying Per Bone Fragment, Expect More Fragments

We tell quite a few stories about unintended consequences in SuperFreakonomics, including what happens when governments add or increase a trash-collection tax — like this one and this one.

But I don’t think any stories we tell are quite as interesting as the following one, sent in by a reader named Jack Crichton in British Columbia:

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Everything and came across an interesting paragraph (on page 439) about unintended consequences resulting from an incentive-based program. In the 1940′s, the paleontologist von Koenigswald was searching for early human remains on Java and decided to enlist the help of the locals in his search by offering them “ten cents for every piece of hominid bone they could come up with.” Unfortunately for von Koenigswald (and for his findings), he discovered too late that the locals “had been enthusiastically smashing large pieces into small ones to maximize their income.”

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COMMENTS: 14


  1. Patrick says:

    No offense to the Freakonomics writers, but A Brief History of Nearly Everything is to date one of the absolute best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. The grace and wit with which Bryson tackles the creation of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE AND LIFE AS WE KNOW IT is pretty astounding. My favorite part was learning the numerous ways human life could end in an instant and that there’s no way to predict or prevent any of them. Puts the day in perspective.

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  2. Felix says:

    he should have payed them by gram!

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  3. Kay Mordeno says:

    Haha! That is a funny yet very witty observation. I guess that’s what the Wall Street guys did when they developed the subprime mortgage and brought this country (and even the whole world) to a financial catastrophe. They’d do anything to maximize their profits in the short-run regardless of the consequences of their actions.

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  4. Jrod says:

    There is also an interesting chapter in that book in which Bryson says that one abnormally cold summer can trigger an ice age due to positive feedback mechanisms. That book is great, I always like thinking about that fact during global warming controversies.

    I have thought about this a lot during the back and forth about the last chapter of Superfreakonomics. I havent read it yet and am looking forward to it. I suppose in some doomsday scenario a geo-enegineering solution could cool the earth but actually trigger an ice age, what is worse? Haha. Anyways wanted to say good job responding to the criticisms of Superfreaks, thanks for putting whole quotes into your responses.

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  5. Ian Kemmish says:

    Surely the funnest example of the Law of Unintended Consequences as it applies to food refuse is the story of the Cairo pigs? As well as being an object lesson in why religions should live in harmonious tolerance rather than driving each other out…

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  6. Danilo says:

    This reminds me the story of Oswaldo Cruz, a Brazilian public-health officer who started a campaign to combat the bubonic plague in Rio de Janeiro around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.
    One of strategies was to eliminate the rats that were all over the city, so he started offering money to whomever caught and brought rats to health officials.
    People soon started breeding rats to help in the domestic income.

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  7. Ralph says:

    Didn’t the same thing happen with the dead sea scrolls with the result that the scrolls were cut into smaller pieces to maximise revenue?

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  8. WB says:

    Regarding trash: I noted something very striking at a local fast food chain that has gone green. The one I usually eat at simply has prominently labeled bins for sorting the trash, and customers clean their own table and sort their own trash.

    But the one closest to my house simply has no trash bins at all. Instead, the customers are supposed to leave their trash on the tables and the employees clean the tables and sort the trash.

    End result: I’ve gone in to eat and seen over half of the tables with trash on them. Not appetizing. As a result, I’d choose to eat elsewhere. And infrequent customers like me, used to cleaning our own tables, end up wandering around carrying our trash until an employee spots us and takes it from us. All of this is very disconcerting and drives me to go elsewhere to eat. Like the non-green Taco Bell next door.

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  9. nobody.really says:

    Unintended consequence can have intended consequences.

    A stranded nobleman sought a share of a peasant’s stew. “Prepare a bowlful for me, and when my retinue arrives to collect me I shall pay you one crown for each grease bubble on the surface.”

    The peasant, anticipating a huge windfall, decides to add as much meat, and therefore fat, as he can to the stew. The result, alas, was not proliferation but consolidation. The stew was submerged under a layer of grease. The nobleman received a relatively meat-heavy stew, and paid a single crown in exchange.

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  10. Eric M. Jones says:

    Of course, Scott Adams (Dilbert) wrote about the software group paid to fix bugs. But they were also writing the software, too. Soon a new bug-fixing economy was born and quickly spiralled out of control.

    All sorts of sweet human emotions go wild in the end. Like the people who love cats and take in strays…often a Kafkaesque nighmare soon develops and has to be handled by civil authorities in gas masks.

    Moderation in all things….

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  11. Jim says:

    Low flush toilets, which required multiple flushes after each use.

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  12. Roger says:

    I have seen anecdotal comments that low flush toilets and similar measures to reduce water consumption have resulted in sewage water becoming considerably more acidic (hydrogen sulphide becomes sulphuric acid) which has resulted in faster erosion of the pipes than planned. This leads to more leaks and requires more money to replenish the infrastructure more often. That makes water more expensive so people use less of it completing the circle.

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  13. Sudha M says:

    The low flush toilet typically uses 1/3 water the older toilets would have used. This means up to 3 flushes are acceptable and multiple flushes are still better for water conservation.

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  14. doug l says:

    Pretty funny. Now if the US government was involved and wanted to correct the situation, it would of course, create a special force of auditors and require that each digger maintain paperwork records on their find and evidence that it wasn’t then later “processed” into smaller pieces to improve the bottom line, because simply changing the system to pay by weight would leave an entire bearocracy of overseers out in the cold, and what good would that be?

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