The Cobra Effect, Continued

Quite a few readers and listeners have written in with their own versions of “the cobra effect,” as described in our recent podcast of the same name. Here’s one particularly entertaining one, from Eblyn Miguel Angel:

I would like to bring a comment that came to mind when I heard your podcast on the “Cobra Effect,” in particular when Levitt mentions that for any scheme presented a government must come to the realization that there will be schemers who will break the system or get around it.

I bring this up because my family is Dominican and growing up my father told me a folk tale of something very similar to this involving electric meters in his home country.

When electricity came to the island many things changed, and in particular every home now had a meter installed on the side and a person coming by to check on the meter. So first the people would break open the meters to set the dials to a low number and have it stay there. So the government caught on and locked the meters inside of boxes that couldn’t be opened without special tools & keys. So then the people began to use honey. They would pour the honey on the new lock boxes, and attract ants. Then the ants would carry dirt with them and this dirt & honey would damage the meters once again getting them stuck in place. All of this got so bad that the government had local town halls to discuss the issue.

At one town hall the presenter said, “Now there are ten different ways that the meters can be damaged, and …” — but before he could finish his sentence, someone in the back yelled out “Nope! There are 30!”

Figured you’d like this little tale. 

You figured right, Eblyn.


its not exactly a “Cobra Effect” its just criminal activity of breaking the meters. “Cobra Effect" would be if people began to use meters to disadvantage government or reverse their applied need.
which alternative did people expect? no electricity?

Mike B

A similar, but much better example would be the plight of glass faced Snapple vending machines installed on an east coast college campus. The vending machines had a fatal flaw that allowed anyone of average ability to stick their hand up into the product area and with a poking implement like a stick or pen, press in the product vend solenoid and release an entire row of bottled tea for free.

After a while the vending machine operator installed a device that prevented one from sticking their hand up into the machine to pull off the aforementioned hack. At that point students simply broke the glass front of the machine and stole the drinks the old fashioned way causing the vending operator much more money.

The eventual solution was to stock the diet teas in the lower rows that were vulnerable to the hack. Few people drank diet tea so few would bother to steal them, at the same time they were not angered by anti-hacking countermeasures and felt no need to break the machine.

The term I use for this is "Training Cats" due to the training technique of keeping a cat from jumping on a table. If you squirt the cat with a water gun the cat will simply learn to resent you and poop in your shoes. However if keep yourself hidden while squirting the cat the cat will see getting wet as a natural consequence of the behavior and make the self-interested choice to not jump on the table.

In the case of the vending machines the anti-theft device stoked resentment and resulted in vandalism to the machines, wherein making diet drinks the only ones able to be stolen prompted the hackers to make their own choice not to steal.


Ricardo Anglada

In Dominican Republic the trouble is, the politician don't make anything to punished to people whose stolen the electricity, because this cause loss of electoral favor, and without punished, this become in incentive to the people broken the rule of pay electricity bill.


If the Dominican Republic let private industry handle electricity delivery, stealing wouldn't be a problem. The company would depend on collecting revenue to stay in business . . . not collecting votes.

When "customers" can steal from the government, the government just steals from the taxpayers. When there aren't enough taxpayers . . . oh, well. It's like Thatcher said, "Socialism works until you run out of other peoples' money."

I've been to the DR . . . the electricity goes out in many neighborhoods on a daily basis, unless you have a "friend" in the government.


and private industry wouldn't grease the palms of those vote-hungry officials or create a patchwork of proprietary distribution networks with high-priced devices that only work on their ...

wait... oops... nevermind

Robert Bynum

The solution to the Dominican electric meter problem at least is fairly straight forward. Use the homeowners self interest to keep them honest. There should be a policy that any meter tampered with or unreadable due to poor maintenance gets an automatic high bill. This will prevent tampering and encourage the homeowner to keep the meter in in good working order.

Mondo Bandeenie

That is, until someone finds a way to profit that requires large amounts of electricity, and they can save a load by tampering with the meter. The only industry I can think of that uses loads of energy in a home is growing marijuana, although someone else might be aware of potential uses for loads of 'lectricity.

Sean Maloney

Of course! This would be a variation of the lost paper ticket on a turnpike or other toll road. If you are unable to produce your ticket upon exiting the turnpike, you will be charged the highest possible toll, as if you had entered the roadway from the furthest possible point of entry.


the corbara effect is interesting concept and plays on human nature of greed and initiative to play a fiddle to get a reward.

living in the uk I can see a correlation of incentive vs the benefit system and education system to enhance disability and living needs creating an artificial increase in the disabled population. the incentive is additional money and an easier lifestyle.


Have you seen the initiative in Alexandra (South Africa): get a Mobile for every 60 rats:

We could tests the cobra effect here on a real-life experiment.

Todd M

Looks like South Florida may get its own lesson on the "Cobra Effect" or in this case the "Python Effect"

george roberts

I just listened to "The Cobra Effect" show from last October. (I download podcasts and listen when I can.)

In Minnesota, the Native American tribes have hit it big with casinos. As they looked around for ways to increase their success, they, too, came up with an incentive program.

Why not fill the free buses we already run between the Twin Cities and our casino half an hour south of there by giving everyone who boards a bus a $10 roll of quarters to use at the lot machines?

Almost immediately several Hmong elders began riding the buses, collecting the $10, and then sitting outside the casino smoking and talking with each other until it was time to take the bus home. They never even entered the casino! Needless to say, the program was fairly quickly scuttled.