One of the things that interested me in college was the idea of unintended consequences. There I studied a subject that was called regulatory governance. One of its topics related to unintended consequences. I learned about regulations that instructed people to wear life jackets over dried river beds, I learned about perverse incentives towards polluting that were produced by waste regulations, etc. What interested me was the idea that a vigorous effort to produce one effect often produces exactly the opposite effect. It is an idea that makes an analysis of any discipline interesting.


The above clip is a video tribute to the film the Wackness. There are a few lines in at the are interesting for our purposes. The first comes at 0:03 where Ben Kingsley, playing a therapist, asks his patient – ‘Have you ever heard the phrase – ‘The unexamined life is not worth living?’. His patient responds that maybe the examined life is not worth living either. The second comes at 0:29 where Ben Kingsley suggests ‘that life has a funny way of turning you into the one thing you don’t want to be.’ When I heard these lines they had the feel of truth about them. An examined life may not be the same one as the life that is not examined. Moreover an attempt to examine life may actually, paradoxically, lead to life being less examined. Life lived as intellectualization is not at an all an empirically examined life. It potentially divorces one from one’s own experience. Also there is a layer past which the examination breaks down as Alan Watt’s discusses using the metaphor of an onion. Here we can see the idea that the more you try to do something the more you can produce the opposite effect. So let’s look at three different areas with this simple idea in mind. Psychology, law and philosophy.


Maroda talks about a psychologcial phenomenon ‘enactment’ in a paper ‘Enactment  – When the patient’s and analyst’s pasts converge’.

The paper deals with enactment which is described as being where there is ‘mutual projective identification, followed by mutual, unplanned behaviour, and culminating in a mutual sense of puzzlement and a certain sense of being out of control.’ According to Sandler enactments occur ‘when an attempt to actualize a transference fantasy elicits a countertransference reaction.’

Maroda says that enactment differs from other forms of transference-countertransference interplays in that it is necessarily unconsciously motivated by the mutual stimulation of strong affect, with both persons usually stating that they felt out of control, or at least felt something come over them that was mysterious and powerful. She talks about a former patient, Joanne, to illustrates some points about enactment. Joanne was, apparently, an attractive lesbian in her late 20’s. Her relationships with two previous therapists had turned sexual. Maroda suggests that has the two previous therapists been able to accept their strong identifications with Joanne and their intense attachments to her the outcomes might have been different.

Near the end of the paper Maroda makes the same point again. She offers the example of someone who is sexually abused as a child. She says that while this person does not need to be sexually abused by the therapist she/ he may need to stimulate intense anger, a desire to harm, or intense sexual feelings in the analyst. She says that the more prepared a therapist is to accept these feelings as a natural event in the treatment, the less likely the therapist is to repeat the past, in a literal, and traumatizing way.


Cass Sunstein a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago has some very interesting things to say about this. In his paper of on ‘paradoxes of the regulatory state’ he refers to ‘self-defeating regulatory strategies that achieve an end opposite to the one intended’.

He looks at, inter alia, the OSHA environmental regulations in the United States. He points out that over regulation could paradoxically produce under regulation. First of all the fact that congress makes the regulations so stringent means that regulators are reluctant to use them. He also points to a particular EPA regulation that required installation of anti pollution technology in new automobiles. The encouraged the retention ‘of old, dirty vehicles, retarding the ordinary salutary retirement of major sources of environmental degradation.’ Another example might include the EPA’s strategies involving costly ‘scrubbing strategies’ imposed on new sources of sulphur dioxide.

Packed Bed Scrubber Video

These strategies have perpetuated old sources of sulphur dioxide and added to very problem they were trying to solve. Similarly, he talks about stringent regulations concerning FDA approval of new drugs causing people to use older, more dangerous drugs.


I read a book recently edited by Slavoj Zizek. It was called ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about Lacan (but were afraid to ask Hitchcock’.

Now I enjoy Zizek’s work but I found myself somewhat irritated by convoluted diagrams and an endless regurgitation of the words ‘symbolic’, ‘real’, ‘symbolic’, etc. When I have read other works by Zizek I find myself saying ‘get to the paradox’. That’s another word he uses a lot. ‘Paradox’. That and the word ‘precisely’ where he means anything but precisely. In fairness to him to he makes a mean paradox. The most interesting one in this book for me relates to the Peter Weir film Dead Poet’s Society.

The author of that essay in the book discusses Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative. It may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action. To have a truly moral or truly free action it has to be free from considerations other than those relating to the act. The categorical imperative does not place importance of the subjective motivations surrounding an act. Neither does it concern itself with the maximization of good for the greatest number. His thinking is concerned with the inherent meaning and deontology of actions. To have a true act – free and moral it has to be free from other actions and causal sequences. The problem is that these acts are few and far between. The more you try to do a free and moral action the more trapped you often become.

In Dead Poet’s Society the boys at a prestigious academy, inspired by an unorthodox English teacher, decide to seize the day and break with authority and conformity. They decide to live more authentic lives. We learn after a prank during one of the academy’s assemblies that the boys were doing something because they thought it was what the teacher would have wanted. Thus in their attempts to become free from parental/ scholastic authority they replace it with another form of authority.

Later on in the film another of the boys pursues acting in defiance of parental authority. Acting though is not the thing either because the acting is just a reaction to the father’s authority or what Mr Keating wants for him. He breaks out of this though by carrying out one freeing act which also traps him. Suicide. This a transcendent act. An act in itself. The more the boys try to free themselves from authority the more beholden to it they become. The act that is the most ultimately freeing from authority also is the most confining because it involves an end to existence and thus the ability to act rationally and carry out acts.

Across these three areas we find the same thing. Often the harder someone tries to achieve one thing the more likely they are to produces the opposite. At this point it seems appropriate to draw comparisons between the different areas. Maybe it might be better to leave expansive comparison for another blog post but off the top of my head. I note a similarity in the language used in different areas. In Cass Sunstein’s paper he is talking about ‘pathologies’ of the regulatory state. The language of psychology. The follow up notion that real change is facilitated through self-regulation seems to occur in all of the different areas too. In law self-regulation produces the best results. Well conditioned self-regulation. In analysis the same deal. Insight has to be discovered by the patient. Perceived threats to freedom might result in reactance –

The Kantian/ free acts area might also be covered by self-regulation. The acts that are free and moral are done on a self-regulated basis out of a respect for the act itself not because one is pressured into doing an act. Perhaps then the follow up post is a cross-disciplinary analysis of self-regulation.


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