Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Zakie Effect: Why Less is More

In 2003, a government contracted photographer set out to take pictures of the California coastline, in an attempt to document coastline erosion. When the photographer completed the project, he put the 12,000 pictures up on his website. However, one of his pictures happened to have Barbra Streisand’s house in it. Streisand didn’t like that there was a photo of her house on the internet, and tried to file a lawsuit to get the photo removed. Now, before the lawsuit, the photo had been downloaded six times (twice by her lawyers). However, once word got out, over 400,000 more people decided to check out the photo. Streisand tried to control something, and ended up losing more control in the end.
In 1986, FOX started airing the show “Married… with Children.” The first season of the show did terribly, and was rated #142 in terms of most watched shows that year. In 1987, it did a little better, jumping up 26 spots to #116. However, during that season, one episode offended a woman by the name of Terry Rakolta. She decided to lead a boycott against the show, petitioned advertisers to drop their sponsorship of the show, appeared on talk shows and generally just went around saying how awful the show was, calling for it to be cancelled.
Before this attempted boycott, the ratings were terrible. However, after Rakolta went around telling people not to watch it, demanding it be cancelled, the ratings for the 1988 season skyrocketed (going from a rating of 4.7 to 10.5), and it went from the 116th most watched show to the 58th. Not too bad! Rakolta tried to get the few people who were watching the show to stop watching it, and inadvertently caused more people to check it out.
Several studies have taken a group of cigarette smokers, and divided them up into three groups. One group would act on any urge they had to smoke, the second group would try and suppress their urges, and the third group was the control and just acted normally. At first, it seemed that the group who suppressed their thoughts about smoking were improving. However, as time went on, their cigarette usage came back with a vengeance, and surpassed that of the other two groups. Trying to suppress the urge to smoke actually make people smoke more!
When researchers asked volunteers to hold a pendulum and keep it steady, they did alright. But when the volunteers were told “don’t let the pendulum swing left to right” they saw that the pendulum would swing left and right much more than before told not to let such a thing happen. Other research has found that trying to relax will make you more stressed. Telling yourself “don’t forget X” will make you forget it, and consciously trying to be fair will result in people being more prejudiced.
The common theme here is clear: the more control you try to exert on something, the less control you end up having. I liken it to trying to hold Jell-O in your hand. The tighter you grip it, the more it will slip through your fingers.
For years I tried to find a name for this phenomenon. I've asked psychologists, neuroscientists, searched the web, posted questions on relevant internet forums, etc. Despite all my efforts, I couldn’t find a term, theory or concept that explained this tendency. I thought it was odd, seeing as it isn’t exactly a brilliant or overly clever observation by any means. Finally, about a year ago, an ex-girlfriend of mine (who happened to call me “Zakie”) said that I should just name it the “Zakie Effect.” So, I did.1 The Zakie Effect simply states that trying to control something will often result in you having less control of it.
Though, it turns out that I am not quite as original as I had thought. I later learned that these types of phenomena are indeed known, but the terms used to explain them don’t tend to cover as broad of a spectrum as the Zakie Effect does. For example, Ironic Process Theory states that trying to suppress thoughts (and by extension, actions) will make them more prevalent in the person doing the suppressing. Now, the Ironic Process Theory accounts for things like the pendulum experiments, the smoking experiments and other such examples where the subjects are attempting to suppress and control their own thoughts and behaviors. But it doesn’t account for people tending to pursue forbidden fruits and explicitly do what they are told not to do.
Likewise, the Streisand Effect is the term now used to account for the spread of suppressed information online. When someone tries to suppress/hide/remove information from the internet, its public exposure rises, and the information spreads even more widely than before.
The Zakie Effect does have a weakness though. It’s not a theory—it doesn’t explain anything. It’s simply an observation that comes with a prediction: the more you try to control something, the less control you will have. It also predicts, paradoxically, that the best way to actually control something is to “loosen your grip”, sort to speak. Let’s look at a few examples of this prediction in real life…
In July 2001, Portuguese officials realized that their country had a drug problem. At the time, Portugal had the highest rate of drug users in all of Europe, and something had to be done. Instead of taking a page out of the American “War on Drugs” playbook, Portugal did the opposite and decided to decriminalize drugs. They didn’t just decriminalize soft drugs like marijuana, they decriminalized everything. Crack, meth, heroin, etc. Instead of drug users going to jail, they were sent to “dissuasion clinics”, where they would meet with addiction experts who were careful to never say “don’t do drugs”, but instead would explain the risks associated with the drugs, and gave info as to how the user could seek help. That is, they changed their goal from trying to get people to stop doing drugs by criminalizing drugs, and criminalizing drug users, to just educating people, and helping people get treatment.
Of course, there were a large number of people (not just in Portugal) who predicted that the decriminalization of drugs would make Portugal into a drug oasis, and usage (as well as things like HIV rates) would skyrocket. But in fact, just as the Zakie Effect predicts, the opposite happened. In just about every group measurable, drug usage rates dropped significantly. Portugal now has the lowest rate of people who have ever tried marijuana, compared to other countries in Europe (10%).2 Among 9th graders, drug use dropped from 14% to 10%. HIV infections also dropped by a whopping 17%, and drug related deaths dropped by over 50%. The amount of people who went into drug treatment rose from 6,000 to 15,000. Source.
The evidence is crystal clear: decriminalizing drugs, and taking the “forbidden fruit” aspect of it away has been enormously beneficial. 
Back in America, many adults have worried about the teen pregnancy rates. There were two schools of thought on how to battle this problem. One school said to teach the students that sex outside of marriage is immoral, psychologically damaging, and is something to be avoided. Of course, the other side argued that students should actually learn about sex so that if they do choose to engage in it, they will make smart, educated decisions.
Of course, as everyone knows, abstinence only sex education failed (and continues to fail) miserably. States that teach abstinence only consistently have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in the country. Research also found that because of abstinence only education, the percentage of students reporting having ever engaged in sexual intercourse increased for nearly all ages between 13 and 17. The Zakie Effect strikes again!
Then there are examples of sex scandals in churches which are against sex. The Zakie Effect predicts that if the Catholic Church didn’t put such an emphasis on “priests must be abstinent”, the number of sexual abuse cases would be much, much lower.3

There are also tons of anecdotal examples that I see all the time. When a girl (or guy, it doesn’t matter) feels their significant other starting to pull away, and the girl then calls more often, tries to spend more time with the guy, etc, it just causes the guy to feel smothered and pull away even more. The girl tried to gain control of the relationship, and ended up losing it. Heck, just in regular dating terms, if you want to attract a girl, you are supposed to act uninterested. Acting (too) interested will make the girl lose interest. I am sure that others can think of numerous examples of the Zakie Effect that they have seen themselves.
Lastly, the Zakie Effect touches a bit in behavioral psychology (Behaviorism). Ever since BF Skinner started training his pigeons, we have known that when it comes to controlling and changing behavior, punishment is the least effective method that exists (punishment is the giving of something adverse when an unwanted behavior occurs, such as spanking a child for misbehaving), and the evidence for this is clear and overwhelming. If punishment did work, we would expect most abusive parents to have the best behaved children. Obviously, this is not the case. This also relates to the Portugal drug example. Instead of punishing people and telling them they shouldn’t use drugs, they found another method and had success.
In conclusion, when it comes to trying to control something, less is more. Relax your grip on whatever you are trying to control, otherwise it will slip through your fingers. It’s counter-intuitive and it feels like you are doing exactly the wrong thing, but I think I have made the case that this is what the evidence suggests is the best course of action.


1. Of course, it's entirely possible probable that this effect is actually known and has a name, and I just haven't been able to track it down yet. 
2. Meanwhile, 42% of Americans have used marijuana. 
3. While it is interesting that so many anti-gay preachers and politicians turn out to have some homosexual scandal, I don’t think that the Zakie Effect can account for that. Simply because the cases are not common enough, and it is more likely that these people just had homosexual tendencies to begin with. You don’t turn gay by telling people not to be gay.