The Butterfly Effect

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What is the “butterfly effect” and how does it apply to family therapy?

Answer: The concept of the “Butterfly Effect” has its origin in Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory describes certain dynamic, or changeable, conditions within systems that on the surface appear random, or chaotic. However, underlying the apparent randomness are organizing patterns that maintain the system. Meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, first described these organizing patterns as the Butterfly Effect because they are very sensitive to change. Concerning weather systems, he stated, “if a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, it might produce a tornado in Texas.”

Similarly, family systems also have organizing patterns of behavior underlying observable order, or disorder. Any change in the behavior of one member of the system will impact all other members of the system.

In therapy, the therapist works with the client, or couple, to discover one or more behaviors that when changed will impact the whole system. Change is accomplished by making these small, sometimes almost unobservable, but purposeful steps to reorganize patterns of behaviors that keep a family “stuck” in very unhealthy ways of relating to one another.

The beauty of the Butterfly Effect is that you don’t have to wait for the other person to make the change. It could be as simple as refusing to argue, not lying for an alcoholic spouse, hugging and talking with your spouse before doing other personal activities, setting and consistently reinforcing boundaries for your children, or purposefully taking time to listen to and talk with your children.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to realnews@deltadiscovery.com.