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.

  • The Dutch languagehas a word for this, 'averechts', but it seems awkward/context dependant to translate. – Maarten Feb 7 '14 at 13:02
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    A single word meaning "producing or capable of producing a desired effect" is efficacious. Inefficacious means not having the desired effect. That might be useful to you, even if not having the desired effect is not necessarily the same as having the opposite effect. – stifin Oct 19 '16 at 14:55

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.


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
  • No, no, @cwallenpoole. Sausage puns are the wurst. – Tyler James Young Jun 22 at 22:35

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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