Why sometimes we make decisions that harm us

Some time ago I read a story that caught my attention.

It was the story of a village in India where there was a plague of snakes that terrified the population.

Every day several neighbors had to be treated for bites, the children could not go to school, and the travelers did not even want to appear there to avoid any risk.

Faced with this serious situation, the mayor decided to take matters into his own hands and announced a reward of 10 gold coins to anyone who killed a snake and turned in its skin as proof, hoping that this would attract brave men to help solve the problem. And he was not wrong.

A few days after the announcement, snake hunters began to arrive in town in search of riches, and immediately the number of reptiles began to decrease.

Little by little, the town was recovering the smile

Children played in the streets, people could leave their houses without fear, and everyone celebrated the mayor’s wise decision.

However, the good news did not last long.

Within a few weeks, the town was filled with snakes again and, although the hunters continued to kill them and demand their money, the number of reptiles did not stop growing.

Finally, after a few months in that situation, the town hall went bankrupt, the bounty hunters left and the town ended up abandoned.


As you can see, the story I have told you does not have a happy ending.

The inhabitants had to flee and the snakes took over the town.

But… what the hell was what happened? Why did the snakes suddenly reappear if the plague was already controlled?

Very easy.

Although the mayor’s announcement had initially filled the town with hunters willing to kill snakes, it had other unintended consequences.

When the hunters ran out of snakes to hunt, as they did not want to give up the juicy reward, they began to raise their own snakes and release them on the streets, so that they could later hunt them and collect their gold coins.

That meant that the total number of snakes did not decrease despite the fact that every day a few died.

And meanwhile, the mayor kept paying and paying… until one day the town ran out of money and went bankrupt.

His initiative, which was aimed at solving the snake problem, not only did not fix it, but had the opposite effect.

And all because he had ignored the second and third order consequences.

Second and third order consequences

In my last article I explained that we live in a complex and interconnected world, where an action never has a single consequence.

There are always multiple consequences, which in turn generate other consequences, which in turn generate other consequences… and so on various levels.

The first level of consequences, the most immediate consequences, we can call first order consequences.

The second level of consequences, the consequences caused by the first-order consequences, we can call second order consequences.

At the third level of consequences, the consequences caused by the second order consequences, we can call them third order consequences.

And so on.

The mistake made by the mayor was that he only took into account the first-order consequences of his initiative (that hunters would come to town to kill the snakes), and he ignored the second-order consequences (that when there were no more snakes, the hunters would stop collecting) and third-order (that the hunters would breed their own snakes in order to continue collecting).

Exactly the same mistake that we make when we assume that more is always better.

We overestimate the first-order consequences, but we forget about all the others.

For example, when evaluating a promotion, we only look at the increase in income that we are going to achieve (first-order consequence), and we ignore that we are going to be paid more to take on more responsibilities (second-order consequence), and that these new responsibilities may result in more hours at the office, more stress, and a more boring job (third-order consequence).

How to make better decisions

I learned this concept of first-order, second-order, and third-order consequences from ray dalioand I wanted to share it with you because I think it is essential to create a happy life.

And it is that, on many occasions, we screw up our lives ourselves because we make decisions looking only at the immediate consequences and ignoring all the others.

For example…

  • We choose junk food because it tastes good (first-order consequence) and we ignore the effect it will have on our body (second-order consequence). In the end, we end up obese and with health problems.
  • We get into a 30-year mortgage because we want to have our own house (first-order consequence) and we ignore how much that debt can limit our freedom (second-order consequence). In the end, we end up chained to a job we hate because we have to pay the bank every month.
  • We are obsessed with growing our company as fast as possible to earn more money (first-order consequence) and we ignore the responsibility that comes with running a large company with more employees (second-order consequence). In the end, we end up stressed and without time for our family.

If you notice, in most cases the first-order consequences are very tempting (pleasure, possessions, money), but they don’t have a huge impact on our happiness.

On the contrary, the second and third order consequences do affect what is truly important in life (health, freedom, relationships).

This makes us often get carried away by temptation and sacrifice, without realizing it, things that are a thousand times more valuable.

The secret to not fall into this error is very simple:

When making any decision, consider all the consequences of it, not just the first-order consequences.

Do not stay only in the immediate. Also look beyond.

Because if you only take “some” consequences into account, you may end up achieving the opposite of what you wanted to achieve.

Just like the mayor in our story.


Photo: Snake in pond with water lily pads

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