The Butterfly Effect

By Emmett Bassen-Alexander

A butterfly flaps its wings and miles away, a tornado starts. This is the classic example of the butterfly effect, a staple of chaos theory. The butterfly effect states that very small events can have massive repercussions on large scale occurrences, such as the example of the eponymous butterfly starting weather patterns miles away. But does that idea have any relevance outside of math? Does the butterfly effect really mean anything to human life? Well, I’m here to say no, and here’s why.

Personally, I always try to connect little things I could have done differently to outlandish outcomes. Jaywalked fast? A little slower and you would have been president! Ordered the salmon instead of the burger? Now you’re going to a different college! But these are unreasonable conclusions. There is nothing that would connect those two things, but if we go by the butterfly effect, it could happen. That possibility opens up a whole new way to worry about something. All the butterfly effect is doing here is rationalizing my catastrophizing, while really serving no purpose at all.

The Butterfly Effect is also not applied correctly by popular culture at all. Most media portrays it backwards. Pop culture tends to read from effect to cause, rather than the other way around. For example, on the Titanic, there was an officer on the ship that would have been able to see the iceberg had he been in possession of the ship’s binoculars. The only problem was that the binoculars were locked away, and the keys were lost. So the idea is that he could have saved the Titanic from its crash if he had the binoculars, but that is just untrue. You can’t attribute a whole event to just one previous event, because all events are caused by a culmination of other past events. The ship could still have sunk for another reason, and there were many other flaws in the Titanic, but since it happened in the past, people latch onto the binocular thing as the sole tipping point for a large event. This is actually the opposite of what the actual butterfly effect says. Rather than retroactively attributing one large event to a single small event, the butterfly effect says that one small event could theoretically influence many of the outcomes down the line. There is no “butterfly” for every action, but anything could be the “butterfly” for a number of larger actions. A crucial difference, but not one anyone makes.

Finally, if you think about it, there really is no point in indulging the butterfly effect. Just like my experiences before, there is no way to know or prove how something will change by you doing one action or another, so thinking about it is an exercise in futility. If you really want to make a difference in your life or the world at large, thinking about what little thing could have changed only makes it worse. 

In the end, the butterfly effect is a principle better utilized by the field that developed it, chaos theory. Our complete mockery of the actual effect and our inability to meaningfully understand it makes me think that we should just stop using it entirely. Because if you think about it, the butterfly effect amounts to “sweating the small stuff.” And you know what? No one needs that in their life.