The butterfly effect refers to the fact that a tiny event can cascade and cause a colossal event down the line. It’s called the butterfly effect because the idea is that even a gentle butterfly flapping its wings can be enough to set up a chain reaction down the line.
In science, there is a term known as Chaos theory. It explains how unpredictable courses of events lead to an irregular and unpredictable evolution of events downstream.
Essentially one event leads to another. Below are some examples of what’s known as the butterfly effect.
What is the Butterfly Effect?
The best example of Chaos theory is the butterfly effect, a concept by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz. Lorenz found that tiny events as seemingly insignificant as a flap of butterfly wings could begin a process that can affect the weather miles away.
Let’s look at examples of the butterfly effect, starting with Lorenz’s concept itself.
10 Butterfly Effect Examples
1. Butterfly’s Wings
Summary: A butterfly flapping its wings could theoretically cause a ripple in the air, creating a tropical storm on the other side of the World.
Let’s say a butterfly flapped its wings in Tokyo. A violent tropical storm hits the Somalian coast over 6000 miles away a day or two afterward. Although the butterfly can never be directly to blame, according to Lorenz’s concept, its flapping wings started the process, which put steps in motion to create the storm
A butterfly flapping its wings could begin the effect, precipitating other events, which, in turn, shifted others, and so on, to cause the resulting storm in Somalia.
2. Sophie Caused World War I and II
Summary: Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s decision to take his bored wife Sophie on an official trip to Bosnia led to their assassination, which caused WWI. If he’d chosen not to appease his wife and take the trip, things might have been very different!
Sophie Chotek was married to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The archduke loved his wife deeply, but custom forbade his own wife to accompany him to official royal ceremonies; hence, Sophie was left bored and alone most of the time.
Knowing his wife was struggling with boredom, the archduke decided to take an impromptu trip to inspect the Austro-Hungarian military capacity in Bosnia, which was actually just an excuse to take his wife out and relieve her boredom. When invited, Sophie jumped at the chance to go along, and the butterfly effect was in motion.
The couple left in an open-top car to Bosnia, with the archduke enjoying the chance to show his wife off in public. When they reached Sarajevo, a Serbian nationalist rushed out into the street and shot both Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range, instantly killing them.
The killing sparked outrage, with Austria demanding an unconditional apology from Serbia. Although Serbia condemned the killing, they refused to apologize as they hadn’t had anything to do with the act. What happened next was entirely unpredicted.
It started with Austria declaring war on Serbia for refusing to apologize. Russia immediately jumped to its ally’s defense by declaring war on Austria. Germany, Austria’s ally, declared war on Russia, and France and Britain, both Russia’s allies, declared war on Germany.
WWI had begun. A bored, completely innocent woman had sparked two World Wars when, after WWI, the collapse of the German economy brought you-know-who to power.
3. Accidental Antibiotic
Summary: Alexander Fleming accidentally created a mold juice. Instead of throwing it out, he experimented with it, creating Penicillin.
In 1928, a scientist, Alexander Fleming, discovered mold growing in an unused petri dish. He noticed dying bacteria near the mold and, on the off-chance that closer examination could reveal something, chose not to throw it out.
Later, on further investigation, Fleming identified the mold as part of the Penicillium genus, which is effective against pathogens responsible for scarlet fever, pneumonia, and more. He discovered that a ‘mold juice’ killed the bacteria, and he named this Penicillin.
Alexander Fleming could have chosen to throw the moldy petri dish out, but his choice to instead investigate further created a butterfly effect that impacted the World.
4. The Woodrow Wilson Flu
Summary: Woodrow Wilson got the Spanish flu and couldn’t participate in the Treaty of Versailles. His flu prevented him from influencing the post-WWI negotiations, which could have ended differently if he had turned up.
President Wilson, rallying for fewer punitive damages on Germany before the Treaty of Versailles, ended up playing no active part in the Treaty of Versailles negotiations after being struck down by 1918’s Spanish flu.
Without his persuasive influence, the treaty imposed harsh restrictions on Germany, which led to its total economic collapse. Much German bitterness followed the ruling, and the German public decided they needed a strong leader to take charge – the leader was the dictator who later started WWII.
Had Wilson been present at negotiations and succeeded in awarding fewer punitive penalties to Germany, the World might be different. Wilson’s flu caused a butterfly effect that had severe repercussions.
5. Günter‘s Gaffe
Summary: An on-air gaffe by an East German politician caused chaos and the later fall of the Berlin Wall. East Germany might have stood for many more months if he hadn’t erred live.
Günter Schabowski made a mistake when he gave a slightly incorrect answer at a 1989 live TV press conference announcing changes to East German travel policies. Schabowski had rushed into the press gathering without having had a chance to read the government statement handed to him seconds earlier.
On air, he started by reading, “the government now authorizes travel freedom,” before a journalist interrupted him, asking when the changes take effect. Instead of pausing to read the statement further, Schabowski gaffed, “as far as I know, right away.” Shortly afterward, crowds of East Germans gathered at Berlin Wall border posts, demanding an exit to the West.
Fearing a riot, guards opened the border gates, allowing citizens safe passage into West Germany. Schabowski’s gaffe began the butterfly effect that brought down the Berlin Wall, with demolition beginning early in the following year.
6. Dog-gone Politician
Summary: Charlie Wilson became a politician to avenge someone who killed his dog, and Wilson became an influential politician supporting rebels in Afghanistan.
The 1950s: Charlie Wilson’s pet dies in Texas after city councilor Charles Hazard feeds it food mixed with glass. Wilson gets his revenge by persuading the public to vote against Hazard in the next city election. Afterward, he decides to start a political career himself, becoming a senator at the young age of 27.
Many years later, Wilson lobbied to support the rebels in Afghanistan. Due to his support, the US filtered funds through Pakistan, training troops who later defeated the Soviets.
The 2000s: After 2001, a radical faction of those rebels attacked the United States, killing thousands of Americans. Charles Hazard’s killing of Charlie Wilson’s pet started a butterfly effect that has sent shockwaves around the World.
7. Duct and Run
Summary: President Richard Nixon’s secret operatives were careless with a piece of duct tape during their covert operations, leading to the fall of the president.
Covert operatives who broke into the DNC headquarters at Washington DC’s Watergate complex in 1972 made a mistake that set off a chain reaction that rocked the World.
One of the operatives stuck a piece of duct tape onto a door lock to prevent it from locking. An alert DNC security guard noticed the tape and opened the door to investigate further, catching the operatives red-handed.
In the wake of the ensuing Watergate scandal, President Nixon resigned from the Oval Office, with a single piece of duct tape and the butterfly effect changing the US president.
8. Stan the Man
Summary: Stanislav Petrov’s decision not to launch missiles against the US meant that a potentially-devastating computer glitch remained nothing more.
In 1983, the Soviet early missile warning system disrupted Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov’s shift, reporting a single missile launch from US territory, and Petrov dismissed the warning as a computer error.
During the same shift, the computer system reported four more launches. Still, Petrov chose to ignore these too, assuming that an actual US missile strike would indicate thousands of similar launches.
The Soviet Union didn’t blow up, so Petrov’s decisions were proven correct. The following day technicians discovered that the Soviet missile-tracking computer system had malfunctioned, vindicating Petrov. Stanislav Petrov’s decision and the butterfly effect averted a nuclear war.
9. Let Them Eat Cake, and Everything Else
Summary: Unhappy revolutionaries overthrew the French monarchy and, in so doing, created a world-renowned cuisine served in restaurants all over.
Following the monarchy and noblemen’s executions during the French Revolution, several skillful French chefs that had worked for the wealthy lost their jobs. With limited options available to them, these chefs began to open their own restaurants.
The rest of Europe started doing the same, but the experts were all French, and classical French cuisine’s reputation was born, with Classic French restaurants still dominating the fine-dining World. The revolution began the butterfly effect, which changed the Culinary World.
Finally, let’s go back to nature, where we started.
10. The Snow is Falling
Summary: A tiny clump of snow breaks free from a clifftop. Due to this, more and more break free, and an avalanche results.
A small clump of snow breaks off on top of a mountain cliff and falls into the snow below. As other snow dislodges, the momentum builds, causing an avalanche that destroys trees, rocks and every other living thing in its path.
The avalanche affects families, homes and nature and is a prime example of the butterfly effect at work.
It’s safe to say that every action, no matter how small, causes a reaction of some sort. The butterfly effect started when time began, and it never stops, with every change at any given time, up to the present, resulting in even further change.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.