The butterfly effect is a theory from chaos theory that suggests that even the tiniest event can have far-reaching implications that end up altering the course of history and the state of our lives. It’s a popular notion that has been referenced by many films, books and TV series and that certainly provides some food for thought.
But is it real? And how can we be expected to continue living our lives normally with the knowledge that even the tiniest action could end up sealing our fate?
While popular culture has adopted the butterfly effect for its own ends, the authentic scientific interpretation of the term is a lot more complicated. The term was originally coined by Edward Lorenz who actually used it to describe the unpredictable nature of certain systems. He originally demonstrated this argument by creating a computer program to simulate the weather. He then changed just a single one of the conditions from .506127 to .506 and found that the results changed dramatically. The 1972 paper written around this demonstration was called Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? (1)
And thus the term was born.
This demonstrates that some systems and some natural phenomena are complicated as to be beyond any hope of prediction. It’s only Hollywood that has taken the idea and run with it to suggest that if we wear a red jumper instead of a blue one, then our lives can completely change!
To be clear, the ‘butterfly effect’ as it was originally described by Lorenz is certainly a real effect. But does something similar have any relevance to the lives of men?
While the term may have been misappropriated to some degree, in this instance the metaphor is apt. It really is true that a small change in our clothes, a change of direction or any number of tiny differences in our lives could completely alter our destinies.
This is something that we can easily see with tragic road accidents. If someone is hit by a car, then any small distraction that would have meant they were not in that place at that time would have prevented that from happening.
This in turn would completely alter the course of their lives – as well as all the people affected by their death or injury. All the people they would never meat. Their children who might never be born. The routes on the way to work of all the diverted traffic. The decisions and personality of the person driving the car. And so much more.
And maybe, just maybe, choosing to wear a different colored jumper could have made them that little bit more visible on the road.
Then again though, it’s equally true that many of the small decisions that we make will have no big impact on the rest of our lives. So this is not to say that every one of our decisions now needs to be painfully stressed over, or that you should be frozen by indecision.
In fact, this idea also shows us that we need to worry less about some of the big decisions in our life. Often it is not the big ‘pivotal moments’ that end up influencing our lives the most at all. You might think that choosing where to live, who to date or what job to take would be the most impactful decision that you could possibly make… but in reality, it might turn out that the color of your jumper one Tuesday morning was actually much more important…