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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. Jim says:

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

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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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