The butterfly effect posits that small changes can eventually be amplified into large differences in an outcome — that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Africa, for example, can eventually affect the course of a hurricane as it moves across the Atlantic.
I believe in the butterfly effect, and think it is inarguable that small changes can have a significant ultimate impact. I believe it because I put the butterfly effect to a practical test every time I drive to Cincinnati — as I did this morning.
Let me state for the record that the drive from Columbus to Cincinnati for a 9 a.m. meeting . . . well . . . sucks. That’s because there’s no good time to leave. Leave too early, and you sail past the choke points with almost no traffic and arrive in Cincinnati at 7:15, with plenty of time to kill in a sleepy Queen City. Try to time it so you arrive close to 9 a.m. and you’re bound to run into hellacious traffic jams from King’s Island until you’re in sight of the Procter & Gamble buildings. And there’s no doubt in my mind that my decision on when to leave influences the traffic conditions that I encounter. Simply by deciding to roll over and sleep a little later, I inevitably produce the crushing congestion that makes the trip so unpleasant.
And there’s an even more apparent practical confirmation of the butterfly effect when you’re driving, too. Let’s say you’re mired in a traffic jam in which, contrary to common sense and all that’s holy, your car in the left, “passing” lane is at a dead stop, while the traffic in the middle lane is moving briskly past. If you change your lane to try to start moving again, traffic in that new lane will immediately come to a halt. Why? The butterfly effect, and the fact that every other driver in the stuck lane saw the same traffic flow you did and switched lanes at exactly the same time.
It’s nice to know that the butterfly effect is real, but have you ever noticed that the butterfly effect always produces something bad? Maybe we should call it the moth effect instead.