: What is the difference between snowball, domino and butterfly effect?


Small decisions that end up causing something huge in the end. I think they are the same.

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The snowball effect is essentially a feedback loop. Think of a microphone next to a speaker. The smallest sound sets off the speaker, which sets off the microphone which transmits the sound to the speaker, only this time it’s twice as loud. The speaker plays it, the microphone picks it up again and on it goes.

It’s something that starts off small and picks up momentum very fast because of a self-reinforcing loop. Like a snowball running down a snowy hill.

The domino effect refers to any single event that sets off a chain of events. Think of a banking collapse. If a single bank defaults on its payments, the next bank finds itself in serious trouble because all of its loans are now worth nothing, which makes it default as well. The chain keeps going on, until the entire banking system collapses.

The phenomenon itself did not increase in magnitude, but the fact that everything is tightly linked means the second one part fails, everything falls flat. Like a chain of dominoes.

The butterfly effect refers to how a very small event can cause cataclysmic, sometimes completely unrelated consequences. It gets its name from chaos theory and the hypothesis that a single butterfly flapping its wings can cause a tornado to eventually form on the other side of the planet. Many mathematical systems exhibit this property: the simplest change in the initial conditions causes the most jarring difference in the end result.

They’re not the same concept. They make look like so at the outset, but they highlight different properties of what essentially is a chain of events.

*(Edit: You could even argue that the butterfly effect is essentially a domino chain that is amplified like a snowball, but the main point of the butterfly effect is to highlight the immense magnitudes by which the end result can vary compared to changes in the initial effect that set off the events.)*

They are not quite the same – there are subtle differences.

The domino effect is when one thing causes an effect, and that effect causes another effect, and so on. It’s simply a causal chain. Think: I slept through my alarm > I left later than normal for work > I saw a major car accident > I stopped and saved a guy’s life from the wreck > I got put in the news for it > my friend congratulated me. If any of these steps hadn’t happened, my friend wouldn’t have congratulated me. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing about the domino effect that requires something huge to happen in the end – my friend congratulating me is certainly less impactful than the impact of me saving a guy’s life. It’s just A > B > C > D > so on and so on.

The snowball effect is where one small thing occurs and it gets bigger and bigger over time. Think of a virus. First person gets infected, and they spread it to five other people, and they spread it to five other people, and eventually a LOT of people are infected. The snowball effect is a specific kind of domino effect. The difference between this and the domino effect is twofold: the snowball effect generally is concerned with a causal chain where each event is related to one thing – think the number of people infected by the virus, and secondly the thing specifically gets bigger at each stage. The snowball effect DOES end up causing something huge in the end.

The butterfly effect is specifically when we are doing models. It says that unless you are able to completely model every single thing in your environment with perfect accuracy (an impossibility), eventually one small thing will happen your model doesn’t account for. Since your model doesn’t account for that thing, it also won’t account for any changes that thing causes in other things your model does account for, and the same goes for any differences they cause, and so on and so on, until there are so many differences that your model is useless. It’s a snowball effect, but it’s specific to predictions and modeling.

Snowball effect – The same phenomena becomes more and more extreme. A snowball begins small, and as it keeps rolling it becomes bigger and bigger but it’s still a snowball. TL;DR: The same thing keeps happening and escalates.

Domino effect – There is a long chain of causality. One domino knocks over the next, which knocks over the next. A large number of dominos fall, but we’re more concerned with the fact that ultimately a different domino, which is far away, is ultimately knocked over. TL;DR: One thing leads to another which leads to another.

Butterfly effect – A butterfly flapping its wings has large consequences in a different place and in a different time. What those consequences are is impossible to determine and is not pre-planned by anyone; rather it’s the outcome of a complex set of circumstances and random chance. TL;DR: One small thing leads to unknown and undefined consequences.