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What is the butterfly effect?

Sometimes small changes in a situation can lead to big changes in the final result. This is known as the butterfly effect.
Butterfly resting on a flower
© ACTISS

Sometimes small changes in a situation can lead to big changes in the final result. For example, sometimes it takes just one person to change his or her attitude in order to completely change the dynamic of a protest. This is an observation that you might associate with one quite famous term. Maybe you’ve come across the term “butterfly effect”?

The butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions typical for complex systems, in which a small change in the starting point can result in large differences in how the whole process unfolds later. It is worth underlining that it’s not the situation where each change has such a huge impact on the final result but rather the whole system of elements is connected in such a way that it is vulnerable to small changes in some points or areas or points in time.

In other words, sometimes a small change can have no impact at all, sometimes it creates a proportional change (small change in initial conditions->small change in the final result) and sometimes it may have a huge impact on the way the process unfolds. Like throwing a small rock on the top of the mountain – sometimes it’ll just drop, sometimes it’ll make a few small rocks tumble down and in other cases, or if thrown into a vulnerable spot, it can create an avalanche. If you study such a complicated social process, vulnerable to small changes, it makes it really difficult to predict the final outcome. If one person can sometimes tip the scales, how can you predict anything with certainty?

Discussion

Sometimes a small change in a local neighbourhood, organisation, or company has a surprisingly big impact on all the people within it  – have you ever experienced such a situation? Could you describe it?

© ACTISS
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People, Networks and Neighbours: Understanding Social Dynamics

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