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Is there a word or phrase to express the concept of an action having the opposite effect of the expected outcome?

For example, a drug taken to cure headaches that actually causes headaches, or an advertising campaign designed to deter smoking that leads to an increase in smoking.

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The Dutch languagehas a word for this, 'averechts', but it seems awkward/context dependant to translate. –  Maarten Feb 7 at 13:02

5 Answers 5

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I believe this may also be considered irony; specifically situational irony.

Such situations could therefore be described as ironic, but probably only upon second reference, when the facts of the matter had already been established.

e.g.:

First mention: The headache-treating drug was known to have caused headaches.

Second mention: Dr. Stephens reported the drug's ironic effect to the FDA.

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A common idiom expressing this concept is "to backfire". For example:

  • The campaign to reduce smoking backfired.
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Does that mean the campaign increased smoking or does it mean the campaign was criticized? –  camden_kid Apr 2 '13 at 12:02
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It increased smoking - backfired past participle, past tense of back·fire (Verb) (of a plan or action) Rebound adversely on the originator; have the opposite effect to what was intended. –  mplungjan Apr 2 '13 at 12:50
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That pun is terrible. Worst one of the day. +1 –  cwallenpoole Apr 2 '13 at 17:07

Counter-productive seems to fit your request pretty closely. The OED defines it as:

Having the opposite of the desired effect, tending to act against the attainment of an objective.

It’s a comparative neologism (apparently originally from US bureaucrat-speak in the 60’s), but is now well-established on both sides of the Atlantic in both formal and informal use:

The drug laws are counter-productive, and David Cameron knows it.
                — Tom Chivers, in the Daily Telegraph

But you’re right, they wouldn’t sue him (even if they had a case) because it’d just be counter-productive.
                — lightlee.tumblr.com [random Google result looking for casual use]

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It's called a Paradoxical Reaction. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradoxical_reaction. In general terms, I think you call something like that a paradox.

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'Paradoxical Reaction' applies only in pharmacology. And paradox does not fit the description of 'an action that has the opposite effect to that intended.' –  Kris Apr 2 '13 at 11:45

I just found this term recently and thought that it will be useful for somebody:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

This term is now specific to mass media / Internet, but it will be possibly penetrating in the other relevant fields. However, general concept here is a bit more specific here: forbidding something can possibly rise an interest in something and thus cause a more wide spread (i.e. an opposite effect of intended action).

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protected by TimLymington Apr 8 '13 at 11:16

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