There are a few real-world effects that I think everyone should be aware of. You may not know the exact names of the effects themselves, but knowing the effect itself is an absolute must. Of course, knowing the name of the effect would greatly help out in conversations because you could just say the name of the effect and the other person would know exactly which effect you're talking about, its assumptions, and its theory.
These effects are labeled "effects" not without good reason. They're labeled as such because there is no real theory behind them; they are simply observed phenomena. Consequently, it is impossible to truly understand an effect unless you've experienced them first-hand. My belief is that everyone over the age of 20 has experienced these effects in their lives at one point or the other, knowingly or otherwise.
Remember, each effect is a pattern that occurs again and again. And recognizing patterns are the single-most important key to solving bigger and difficult problems, especially the wicked kind.
And here I present the effects, in order of descending speed of retrieval from memory, that I believe are sufficiently important and recurring to warrant a name. This is a list of very useful abstractions I have compiled and distilled by reflecting and contemplating the happenings in my very own life.
- The Butterfly Effect
This is perhaps the most popular effect that virtually everyone I know has heard of. Popularized mainly by the epic 2004 movie The Butterfly Effect, this single effect has occurred so many times in my life, I'd be worried if I went more than a week without experiencing it again. Unlike most other people, I actually learned about this effect by watching the 2001 Tamil flop movie 12B which was produced 3 years before The Butterfly Effect.
The butterfly effect says that every little decision you make matters, and each decision you make can have unexpected and often devastating consequences many hours/days/months/years later. Furthermore, these consequences transcend political and geographical boundaries.
- The ARR Effect
I discuss this in detail in another post, but the key idea is this: The first impression is always the wrong impression, not just usually. In particular, the first impression of really smart and really talented people is always wrong.
- The Placebo Effect
I also discuss this effect in another post, but the gist is that even if you know something is only a placebo, you should still take advantage of it to obtain the outcome the placebo was intentionally or unintentionally designed for.
- The Humpty Dumpty Effect
The Humpty Dumpty effect is when things appear to be good for a while, but eventually come crashing down on you as their end approaches. This is very much a death spiral that outdated technologies like typewriters and carbon paper have already been through. But more recently, print journalism is experiencing this effect now, and soon enough SMS will also get in there.
- The Slumdog Effect
This is a relatively new effect I've been exposed to, popularized by the Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. The idea is that every little thing you do will help you gain the skills and the knowledge to help you solve a problem or achieve success at an indefinite point in the future. So if you ever have the option of doing something fun, do it. Almost every action is better than inaction especially in cases where you're sitting at home doing nothing productive. Action breeds action which breeds more action. The same is true for inaction.
This effect is related to the butterfly effect, but they're not quite identical. People including myself often confuse the two. I have a feeling the slumdog effect might be a very special case of the butterfly effect.
- The Digg Effect
Usually when people refer to the Digg effect, they're actually referring to the Slashdot effect. The Slashdot effect is the term given to the phenomenon of a popular website linking to a smaller site, causing the smaller site to slow down or even temporarily close due to the increased traffic.
People sometimes also refer to this as the Twitter effect. But there is a subtle difference here. If your site gets massive traffic because of a trending topic, then it's the same as the Slashdot effect. But what's important is if your site gets massive traffic because you tweet about it, or someone else tweets it for you, then your friends re-tweet it, and their friends re-tweet it again, and on and on. This way, tweets can spread out like the branches of a tree or a root system and reach a very large number of Twitter users. The spread is basically only limited by the size of Twitter's user base.
This is a much more organic and viral form of spread which stands quite differently from the Slashdot effect where only a handful of "elite" people decide whether your link is good. With organic links on Twitter, the entire community decides if it's good. They wouldn't re-tweet it otherwise.
- The Amazon Effect
Authoritative sites like Amazon keep getting more hits purely because they've gotten many hits in the past which is what gained them their authority in the first place.
This also explains why Einstein is regarded as a really smart scientist even though there could very well be other smarter scientists the world has never heard of. The more we hear about him, the more we're convinced of his absolute smartness.
The most popular articles on Digg, or the highest rated restaurants on Yelp, or the highly rated products on Amazon, keep getting more and more popular because of their high rating, which makes their rating become even more higher. This process repeats itself infinitely until they eventually get locked in.
That's how the qwerty keyboard got locked in. People today use the qwerty keyboard not because they want to use it but because everybody else is using it. Same with Microsoft Windows, Word and Excel.
This is precisely the case with "Polya's urn". An urn has marbles of two colours, one more than the other, a marble is sampled and replaced, but with one more marble of the same color. Eventually, whichever colour had more marbles to begin with will win and get locked-in.
The rich will keep getting richer. One of the reasons for this is that the rich have more money and more financial buffer to take on bigger risks which earns them bigger returns.
Smart people keep getting smarter over time because they've figured out the recipe to become smart. That's what got them smart in the first place. Then they keep tweaking this recipe until its perfect. Attaining smartness is not something you do. It's not a task on a checklist. But it's an algorithm or recipe you're trying to perfect.
- Catch 22
Sometimes referred to as the chicken-and-egg situation, catch 22 refers to the phenomenon where you need A to get B but you also need B to get A in the first place.
You need local Canadian work experience to get a good job in Canada. But to get local Canadian work experience, you need to get a job in Canada! The solution to this conundrum is to volunteer somewhere for free for a few months to get the experience you need, but that's not always the desirable or ideal solution.
Items/products/restaurants that are just as good but have very few or no good ratings find it harder to get to the top of the list because the homepage only has links to the highly rated items. So you need to be popular to become more popular. Digg circumvents this problem by incorporating the age of the article in its algorithm, but Yelp doesn't. A good rating 3 years old has as much weight as a good rating last night.
- The A-B-A or X-Y-X Effect
I don't actually know if anyone other than me has observed this effect. It's one of my favorite effects, but it's also one of the effects that has caused me most grief.
Say you do A to achieve X. And then you improve on A to do B which produces Y. Now after a while, you decide maybe B wasn't actually an improvement and revert back to doing A to give you back X. Or maybe instead of reverting to A, you improve on B to do C whose outcome Z looks remarkably similar to X unless closely inspected.
But here's what the casual bystanders, i.e. the general population, notice in terms of outcome. They see X, then Y, then X. So if people see X, they don't know if they're seeing X before Y has already happened or after.
You'll have to excuse me for this really bad description. But if you've actually experienced this effect first-hand, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. There are actually dozens of dozens of examples if you actually stop and think about it.
One good example is this website itself. On the outside it looks like a site designed in the 1990's. The site was actually designed in 2005. But if you've never seen how my blog looked before 2005, you'll think the simplicity was unintentional. But if you've seen my old blog, you'll know right away the simplicity is clearly intentional.
- Diminishing Returns
I figure pretty much every one knows this, but I'm mentioning it for completeness. The point of diminishing returns starts when your perceived gain from doing A reduces instead of increasing or staying constant.
I love freshly squeezed orange juice. But after the first glass, logic would dictate that I would go on with a second glass since I love orange juice. But instead I stop myself because almost all of the gains have already been accrued over the first glass. The gains from the second glass will be significantly lower than the first glass.
If you want to quit smoking, try smoking 300 cigarettes a day. If you want to quit watching porn, force yourself to watch porn for 8 hours straight.
- The Einstein Effect
Big things will seem big until you've seen bigger. Great things will seem great until you see greater. If you want to get rid of a headache, ram your knee into the wall.
This single effect explains why travelling and visiting foreign countries can broaden your perspective. It's because you see more, so things you've so far considered big appear minuscule when placed against the right backdrop.
So what patterns are you observing in your own life? What are some of the common effects you can propose general solutions to? How do you build on these abstractions to form even higher-order abstractions? These are the questions you should be asking yourself.
But whatever you do, you should remember that these are just effects, not solutions. You, and only you, can come up with the solutions.