Snowball Effect

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published July 19, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


The snowball effect is a psychological term that explains how small actions can cause bigger and bigger actions, ultimately resulting in a big impact. 

Imagine a snowball that is rolling down a snow-covered hill. It starts off small, but as it gathers more momentum, it picks up more snow, making it larger and larger. The snowball also becomes faster and more powerful as it moves onward. 

This is thought to apply to situations where something starts off small and will gradually build up in power and speed as it grows. Once it starts growing in significance or size, it is thought to do so at an increasingly faster rate until it becomes impactful. 

The snowball effect can describe how many significant changes happen from seemingly small initial changes. A snowball can also explain positive as well as negative effects and can be applied to many areas such as social influence, business, learning, and mental health.

What can the snowball effect be applied to?

The snowball effect can be used to explain the impact of a variety of situations and settings, including: 

Social influence

The snowball effect can explain how the minority can influence the majority. This is when a small group of people influences the behaviors and beliefs of a larger group. 

Moscovici (1985) suggested that if minority groups want to be successful, they need to be:

  1. Consistent – this is more likely to draw the majority’s attention to the issue, problem, or belief. 

  2. Committed – this shows the majority how important the minority think their view is. Being committed may make the majority process the issue more deeply. 

  3. Flexible – this can include the minority being willing to adjust their views or message when presented with new information. The majority will be more likely to take the minority group seriously and not dismiss them if they present themselves as reasonable. 

  4. Persuasive – this is the ability to put across an argument that makes sense. If a majority member is to convert to the minority viewpoint, then they must believe and internalize the argument so that it becomes their own. 

If these factors are used by the minority group, more and more people will have their minds changed and will be likely to persuade more of the people in their lives to do the same. In this way, the minority view snowballs into a majority view. 

Business

The snowball effect can have many applications in areas of business:

  • New businesses – founders of start-up businesses understand that obtaining big profits is the most difficult part of the process. It can be a long process to start seeing the worth of a new business, but once reached (when the snowball gathers momentum), founders can know that the company is self-sustaining and profitable enough to grow.

  • Blogging/social media – creating content on blogs and social media has become a very competitive market. Most creators and blog writers may make hundreds of informative or entertaining posts before they see any appreciable traffic.

    Perseverance and consistency are often key to obtaining more traffic on blogs and social media. Once they start to attract more traffic, they become increasingly more well-known. 

  • Marketing – marketing campaigns can take time to snowball. Marketers should not abandon an idea too early before it has had a chance to prove itself.

    Often, consumers need to hear an offer multiple times before they consider being new customers. This can be explained by the exposure effect, in which consumers respond more favorably to marketing messages they’ve heard before.

    The snowball effect reinforces that marketing teams need to hit potential customers with the same message repeatedly to increase the likelihood that they will become customers. 

Learning

The snowball effect can explain how people learn. Knowledge is often produced through starting with one small thought or idea. Over time, this idea can gather new perspectives and depth, growing fuller and richer. 

After a while, the small idea can develop into common knowledge that is widely recognized and accepted. 

The snowball effect can also be used in the classroom, starting with the teacher or student proposing an idea. The student can then work with other students to develop collective thoughts and snowball a small idea until it becomes a fully developed idea. 

Not all snowballs can bring about a positive impact. The snowball effect can also be used to explain why someone may struggle with their mental health. 

This is often the case with anxiety where an individual becomes anxious about one thing and then it snowballs into something larger, catastrophic, or even irrational. This can happen quickly, or it can happen after having consistently anxious thoughts for a while. 

When ruminating on an anxious thought, moods can become lower, and anxiety can significantly increase. The low mood can then filter out thinking to the point where only the bad things are recognized, meaning that mood gets lower and lower, and someone can get stuck in a vicious cycle. 

Unhelpful thinking patterns that contribute to the snowball effect

There are several unhelpful thinking patterns that can contribute to this snowball effect:

  • ‘All or nothing’ thinking – this is where people will look at things as either all good or all bad, with no in-between. Often, someone with anxious thoughts or low mood will focus on all the negative aspects of life and see things as worse than they are.

  • Jumping to conclusions – this happens when predictions or judgements are made without any evidence to back this up. For instance, someone may believe someone is thinking negatively about them without any proof of this being true. 

  • Overgeneralization – things can snowball when someone sees one negative thing as evidence that everything is awful or that everything will go wrong. 

  • Mental filters – this happens when someone focuses almost exclusively on the negatives and essentially ‘filters out’ the positives. 

  • ‘Shoulds’ and ‘musts’ – someone with this thinking pattern holds strict rules about how they and others should or must be. This can result in unrealistic expectations and frustration. 

Example of a negative snowball

The snowball effect can be seen from one small negative occurrence which develops into something bigger. 

Imagine you wake up late for work because you slept through your alarm. Because you woke up late, it means you missed your bus which usually gets you to work on time.  

Since you got to work late, your boss is angry and shouts at you. You are then in a bad mood because you were shouted at and find that you cannot think clearly. Because you are not thinking clearly, you cannot work as effectively as you normally do, meaning the quality of your work suffers. 

Because your work is noticeably worse, this leads to your boss shouting at you again. You leave work feeling terrible about yourself, so you go home and drink alcohol until intoxicated. Because you drank so much, you forgot to set your alarm for work the next day and you are late again. 

This series of events all started from one small occurrence (sleeping through an alarm) but snowballed into significant negative consequences.

How to stop negative snowballs once they have started?

If your mental health is beginning to suffer due to snowballing anxious thoughts or low mood, there are some ways you can stop this snowball effect before it has a big effect.

Become aware

The first step to stopping negative snowballs before they start is to practice becoming aware of when they start to develop. 

If you notice you are developing anxious thoughts about something, trying to catch these thoughts can prevent them from snowballing into more anxious thoughts. You could even say to yourself ‘I am feeling anxious’ to put a name to what you are feeling. 

Regain perspective

Try to take a step back and challenge some of the unhelpful thought patterns you may be having. For instance, if you observe that you are only noticing the negatives and filtering out the positives, actively try to look for the positive or realistic things. 

Reassess the situation from an objective point of view. You could either write things down or talk to a friend for an outsider perspective. Think about what you would say to a close friend if they were in a similar situation to you – would you treat them as harshly as you treat yourself? 

Maintain a routine

Being anxious or having a low mood can make it more difficult to carry on with your normal activities. It can be very tempting to shut yourself away and ruminate over your thoughts. However, this can lead to the negative snowball getting bigger.

It is especially important at these low times to maintain your usual routine. Keeping busy and motivated can offer an effective distraction from overthinking and thus get you back on the right track towards more positive feelings. 

Do more of what you need

Taking care of your basic needs can make a difference towards preventing negative snowballs from getting bigger.

A mood can be managed better if you get good sleep, eat well, and exercise. Likewise, engaging in mindfulness techniques and relaxation exercises such as yoga and deep breathing are proven ways to calm down and improve mood. 

The snowball effect can be used to help towards self-improvement. Starting off with one small positive thing can then lead to another positive and another until it begins to make a big positive impact on your life.

When it comes to self-improvement, it is common to want to make big changes straight away. When these changes are not followed through it can make people feel like a failure. Trying to do too much at once adds too much pressure, expectation, and frustration. 

However, it is often much more effective and feasible to make small changes rather than making drastic ones that are overwhelming or unfeasible. Over time these small changes can snowball into big outcomes. 

For example, imagine you have the goal to run a marathon. If you try to run a marathon for the first time without any training, you are likely setting yourself up for failure. You are prone to quick exhaustion and giving up before you are even close to finishing. 

Instead of forcing yourself to run a marathon, try to focus on running a much shorter distance, such as one mile. Slowly build up your running distance as you become more competent at it. The key is to be consistent and committed, and not to push yourself to run too far at once. 

Over time, you should be able to see a difference in how far and fast you can run. Your skill will snowball to the point where you should be able to run further and further until eventually you can run a long distance. 

As you find yourself able to achieve smaller goals, you can build up the confidence to take on bigger challenges. 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, July 19. Snowball Effect. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/snowball-effect.html

Sources

Moscovici, S. (1985). Innovation and minority influence. Perspectives on minority influence, 9-52.