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14 Examples of Chaos

Chaos is a small change that greatly transforms the future of a system. This is modeled with the branch of mathematics known as chaos theory. Chaos can only be roughly modeled with probabilities and is one of the reasons that contemporary science generally doesn't view systems as deterministic and fully predictable.* The following are illustrative examples of chaos.

Chain of Events

Chaos is most typically explained with a random occurrence that is the root cause of an improbable chain of cause and effect that is difficult, or likely impossible, to predict. For example, a butterfly flapping its wings that causes a slight wind that causes a leaf to fall into an electrical device that causes a fire that causes a political party to win an election that causes an economic crisis.


Noise is a process that is random and unpredictable. For example, electromagnetic interference that disrupts a data transfer between weapon systems that changes the outcome of a battle that changes the course of world history.

Hyperbolic Change

Hyperbolic change is a process that is faster than exponential change such that it leaps to infinity at a point in time. For example, a bridge that remains standing in 100 mph winds but completely fails at 100.0000000000000000000000001 mph winds. This is chaotic as a slight difference creates two different futures for the bridge.


Complexity whereby a system has thousands of variables that influence a process. This means that a small change to a single variable can potentially change the future of the system with a very small probability of this actually occurring. For example, an improbable change to a single cell in an organism that eventually leads to a serious disease.

Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences are changes that create unwanted effects. This can be chaotic whereby small changes create large and unanticipated outcomes. For example, a chemical added to a building material that is intended to reduce the speed of fires that ends up having unintended health and economic consequences that greatly change the future.

Slippery Slope

A slippery slope is a small change that sets conditions for greater future changes. For example, a hotel that doesn't discipline a staff member for insulting a customer thus creating a culture where it is perceived as acceptable to treat customers poorly whereby this process could eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the hotel due to poor reviews.

Critical Mass

Critical mass is the size that a process needs to become efficient. Critical mass potentially allows small differences to have dramatically different outcomes. For example, a snowball of a particular shape and density rolling down a mountainside that is 8 ounces may be inefficient such that it is likely to quickly stop. If the same snowball were 9 ounces it may be more efficient such that it may be likely to continue to roll and to get bigger such that an avalanche becomes far more likely.

Critical Point

Beyond mass or size, other variables can have critical points too. For example, a fatigued rail on an amusement park attraction that will remain stable at 10 degrees but become brittle enough to fail at 5 degrees.


A single human can transform the future of the world with their talents. For example, 20th century chemical engineer Thomas Midgley played a major role in the development of leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. These were both implicated in major environmental and social problems whereby it is believed leaded gasoline may have lowered IQ on a global basis and chlorofluorocarbons are a major ozone-depleting and greenhouse gas. By contributing to not one but three large scale environmental problems the talented Mr. Midgley certainly changed the world.**, *** This is chaos as if he would have chosen a slightly different career path the world would almost certainly be a different place today. As a side note, Mr. Midgley died in 1944 after becoming entangled in a device he invented to help himself get out of bed.


Idealism is the view that imagination creates reality. For example, a science fiction story that influences inventors and policy makers such that its predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Creativity such as storytelling, music and invention greatly change the world but originate in the mind of an individual such that they are effectively unpredictable.


Emergence is a process that has no central control or design but is created by the individual behavior of parts. This leads to strange elegance such as the fractal patterns of a snowflake or the character of streets of a city that emerged without urban planning. Emergence is inherently driven by chaos. For example, no two snowflakes in the same snowstorm may have the same structure due to slight differences in conditions from one to the next.

Black Swan

A black swan is an event that has such a low probability that it is presumed not to be possible until it happens. This can include chaos as chaos is inherently difficult to predict. For example, a small trader who triggers a panic that triggers financial contagion that triggers a global economic crisis.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency to see the past as more predictable than it was at the time. For example, if a small trader starts a financial crisis you can say it should have been obvious that there were flaws in the system that were bound to become problems. This is obvious now but wasn't necessarily obvious when the event occurred. This is related to other biases such as presentism.

Scientific Determinism

Scientific determinism is the view that the future is predetermined by the current physical state of the universe. This views the world as a fully predictable machine that can be modeled with certainty given enough information. Scientific determinism was a historically prominent view that is discredited by contemporary science such as quantum mechanics and mathematics such as chaos theory. For example, quantum mechanics makes it clear that at the smallest scale, the universe is probabilistic and not fully predictable. Chaos theory expands on this by showing that small changes that are unpredictable can completely change the future.


Most of the examples above are hypothetical and illustrative.
It is easier to think of negative examples of chaos but the effects of chaos can also be positive. For example, a single snowflake that causes snow on your roof to reach critical mass and fall from your roof that causes you to be late for work that causes stress hormones to stimulate your mind that causes an inventive idea that is the basis for a bright future.

Chaos Theory

This is the complete list of articles we have written about chaos theory.
Cascading Failure
Cause & Effect
Chaos Theory
New Complexity
Physical System
Self Organization
Systems Perspective
Systems Theory
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*Hunt, G. M. K. "Determinism, predictability and chaos." Analysis 47.3 (1987): 129-133.
**Galiciolli, Maria Eduarda A., et al. "IQ alteration induced by lead in developed and underdeveloped/developing countries: A systematic review and a meta-analysis." Environmental Pollution (2021): 118316.
*** Pearce, Fred. "Inventor hero was a one-man environmental disaster". New Scientist. Retrieved September 21, 2021.

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