In the late 18th century, the city of Delhi had a problem - it was being overrun with cobras! The government had a great idea to solve this slithering problem: add an incentive for people to bring in dead cobras. This worked really well to bring down the cobra population. At first.
People were bringing in dead cobras by the handful to collect their bounty, thereby ridding the city of its scaly problem and being rewarded with a handful of rupees. But soon the more entrepreneurially-minded citizens saw an opportunity to take advantage of this new incentive. They started cobra farms, breeding cobras for the purpose of being handed in for a reward.
When the government realised what was happening, they naturally discontinued the incentive. Since dead cobras were not longer being rewarded, what did the cobra farmers do? They shut down their farms and released the snakes. The end result was an increase in the cobra population in Delhi, with more cobras in the city than before the incentive.
So what happened here?
This is a great example of a poorly thought out incentive system. The government incentivised the wrong type of behaviour and did not anticipate the perverse consequences. The behaviour they actually wanted to target was not more dead cobras, rather it was fewer live cobras. It’s a subtle difference from a behavioural point of view, but an important one. The decision to incentivise dead cobra behaviour could be from lack of understanding of which behaviour was being incentivised, or perhaps simply because dead cobras are easier to measure than live ones.
While the Cobra Effect is avoidable with a well thought out system, it can be difficult to see without the benefit of hindsight. You may have heard about Call Centres using similar incentives by measuring and rewarding the duration of customer calls. The shorter the call the better, because it means the agent is solving the customers needs faster. And who wants to spend more minutes on a call centre call than necessary, right? Well yes, except that the agents are being incentivised to provide short calls, not a great customer experience. The resulting Cobra Effect is that agents hang up on customers without solving the customer’s need.
The Cobra Effect is a useful warning to those implementing incentives and rewards. While in hindsight it may seem obvious that cobra farms would be the public’s reaction to the incentive, the reality is that it can be challenging to anticipate the behaviours that your incentive may elicit.
This is why we recommend user testing as part of the gamification design process as well as a smaller release with part of your user group before rolling out and scaling. User testing allows you to not only validate and improve your gamification design, but it can also provide an early indication of how people will react to the design. A release to a subset of your users is another good step, because it allows you to observe the actual behaviours in ‘the wild’ of real life. This lets you refine the mechanics (if needed) before rolling out to everyone. And of course, working with an experienced behavioural designer gives you the advantage of being aware of these effects and other cognitive and behavioural biases before you implement an incentive system, helping you avoid the Cobra Effect in your situation.
If you want to find out more about how to change behaviour in your team or workplace without snakey side effects, get in touch with one of our behavioural experts at
The Cobra Effect is described by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor in their book “Primed to Perform: How to build the highest performing cultures through the science of total motivation”.