Everyday Chaos: The Butterfly Effect

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Life certainly isn’t as predictable as we’d sometimes like it to be. Sudden or unexpected changes of plan — even small ones — can have unforeseen knock-on effects.

My husband went off to work one morning last week with my remote control for our housing complex car park in his jacket pocket. Following our rain-soaked walk in the park with the dog the previous evening, we were so relieved to get back inside in the warm and dry that both of us completely forgot to put the remote back in the car where it normally stays.

This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem, but that morning there was an early booking at the counselling centre which I had to open up for! Frantic searching for the remote ensued until I remembered, ten minutes later, where it was almost certain to be. It took me another ten minutes to get hold of my husband, who was with a customer, and another fifteen before he could drive home and drop off my remote.

It could have been worse. As it was, I was sitting in the car listening to music and feeling very grateful that we have a friend and colleague who lives nearby and who also has a key for the Centre. Luckily, he was able to drop what he was doing and open up the office for that first booking very nearly — but not quite — in the nick of time.

It’s amazing how one small change in an established system or routine can spark off a whole series of unexpected consequences. In order for the booking at the Centre to go ahead as usual, my friend had to change his immediate plans for an hour or so; my husband had to leave his customers and colleagues for fifteen minutes; and, as it turned out, the therapist with the booking had to overrun her sessions because my friend didn’t arrive to open up until a few minutes past the start time. I started wondering what knock-on effects that first small change — forgetting to put the remote back in the car that night — might have had on the lives of the people affected by it. My friend missing breakfast and not feeling 100% perhaps? My husband’s customers going elsewhere because they’d been kept waiting? The therapist feeling flustered and missing a vital comment from her client? The client feeling angry because she wasn’t listened to? Into what relationships and situations would the individuals take those feelings, like ripples from that initial event? How might those relationships and situations pan out differently because of the feelings generated by the morning’s unexpected turn of events?

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This is the basis of something known as the ‘butterfly effect’, the term first appearing in a 1952 short story called “A Sound of Thunder” by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury , in which a time traveller inadvertently kills a butterfly on a trip to the distant past, only to find that when he returns to the present, his own world has changed in subtle but disturbing ways.

The idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ as applied to the natural world was popularised by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who was one of the pioneers of the branch of science known as Chaos Theory. He proposed — as a way of illustrating the impossibility of predicting long-term forecasts from the initial conditions or starting point of a weather system — that the actions of a butterfly fluttering its wings somewhere in the southern hemisphere could lead eventually to the creation of a hurricane in the north; not as a direct cause and effect, but as one of many tiny disturbances to the air flow, which build up inexorably to the destructive forces of this type of weather system.

So what, you may well be asking, does this have to do with counselling and therapy? I started writing this post as a way of talking about how even very small and subtle changes in a relationship (for example) can lead to quite unexpected outcomes; change any one part of a system (for example, family relationships) and the whole system will change to adapt to it. I remember when I first started training as a counsellor, the lead tutor told us in stern tones on our first day that “You will change; your relationships with everyone important to you will change as a result of this training, and some of you will lose friendships and marriages as a result”. Nothing like friendly encouragement there then! But she was right; as we individuals changed and grew through our training, our relationships did change in unpredictable ways — some for the better, some not. In other words, change one element of a pattern and the whole is altered.

The butterfly effect is worth remembering for another, more existential, reason too. Most people have at times felt powerless or invisible or unheard — I know I have. If we can apply the idea of the butterfly effect to our own lives, then maybe we can take comfort from the fact that even the smallest action, word or gesture on our part may have a knock-on effect of which we simply can’t conceive in the present moment. The ripples of our words and actions can spread far and wide, whether we’re aware of our influence or not. I’ve written before (in “Reaching Out to Make a Difference” and “Death and the Ripples of Life: What We Leave Behind”) about how the life of one person can make a difference to the lives of many others; perhaps the butterfly effect is also an argument for trying to become more mindful of the effect we may unwittingly be having on those around us.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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