‘Snowball Effect’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on April 24, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'snowball effect,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • The ‘snowball effect’ refers to a circumstance where something increases in importance or size at an increasingly fast rate.

What Does 'Snowball Effect' Mean?

‘Snowball effect’ is a concept that refers to an accelerating growth of magnitude, including importance, danger, fame, or fortune. It refers to something starting with only a small amount of significance and building upon itself, much like the way a small snowball can roll down a snow-covered hill and become larger the further it goes. As the snowball rolls, it gains more mass and surface area, gathering an accelerating amount of snow as it continues.

The concept of the ‘snowball effect’ is something that is used in psychology, aerospace engineering, and other fields. You’ll also see it appear as a cliche in both modern theatrics and cartoons.

  • The ‘snowball effect’ is something that can apply to both good things (aka a virtuous circle) and bad things (aka a vicious circle.)

Essentially, you can use the phrase ‘snowball effect’ when you want to describe a situation where something increases in importance, size, or magnitude at an increasingly fast rate.

Where Does 'Snowball Effect' Come From?

Though it's unclear when the phrase ‘snowball effect’ was first used, it is known that it comes from the way that a snowball will collect snow faster and faster as it is rolled against a snowy surface or down a hill.

That being said, it’s known that the use of the word ‘snowball’ as a verb meaning “to increase rapidly” is attested from the 1920s. Beyond that, the visual of a snowball getting bigger and bigger as it rolls has been in use since at least the early 1600s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The Use of ‘Snowball Effect’ in Print

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'snowball effect' starts becoming more common in publications starting in the early 1900s. Since then, it has increased steadily in its usage.

We find this phrase in a 1943 document entitled “Planning”:

“As a social practice family limitation, in an emulative and competitive society, has a snowball effect. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ in 1890 meant having not more than four children, and in 1910 not more than three; to-day it means having not more than two.”

Another example can be found in The New Cambridge Modern History: Volume 13, Companion Volume from 1953:

“Another concept helps us understand the process of change is that of cumulative causation, or the ‘snowball effect’. This is the opposite of the concept of equilibrium. There are situations in which it makes sense (as we have seen) to say that a society does not change because it does not change; there are also situations where society changes because it changes, where one change reinforces another.”

For a third example, we look to the “Full Committee Hearings on H.R. 5304,” also from 1953:

“The higher you set the rates the less people who are in good health are going to take it and finally you get down to the point where the only people who take it out are the people who are suffering from a disease which they know is going to kill them. If they were charged 110 percent they would be glad to pay in order to protect their families. So you have a snowball effect.”

Finally, here's one last example from the House of Commons in Britain from 1925:

“I hope the right honorable Gentleman will remember the snowball effect of employment. If a man is working and producing something he is not only satisfying his own wants, but every new man who is got into employment is piling up more employment for other people.”

The ‘Snowball Effect’ in Psychology

In the field of psychology, the concept of the ‘snowball effect’ is used to help explain the impact of a wide variety of settings and situations.

These include:

  • Social influence: refers to the ability of a small group of people to have an influence on the beliefs and behaviors of a larger group of people.
  • Business: can be applied to the point when a company becomes self-sustaining and profitable enough to grow, as well as the way that marketing campaigns can benefit from the ‘snowball effect.’
  • Learning: the way that people learn can also be described using the ‘snowball effect,’ where they start with a small thought or idea which grows fuller and richer over time and at an accelerating rate.

The ‘snowball effect’ can also be used to understand negative thinking patterns. People that suffer from anxiety or other conditions can have their thoughts start to ‘snowball,’ where they become increasingly catastrophic or otherwise negative at an accelerating rate.

Examples of 'Snowball Effect' In Sentences

How would 'snowball effect' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “She had always wanted to be famous, but she didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to deal with the snowball effect of fame. One day she was a nobody, and the next, she couldn’t get a moment of peace.”
  • “Mark has been counting on his business benefitting from the snowball effect– reaching a point where customers are just knocking down his door to give him money. I appreciate his optimism, but I also warn him not to put all of his eggs in one basket.”
  • “I feel like this year I’ve been suffering from a terrible snowball effect, it all started when I got into a minor car accident in January, and now it seems like bad things are happening more and more often.”
  • “Poor Mrs. Johnson can’t catch a break. Her husband died, her son got in trouble with the law, and now they’re threatening to evict her. Seems like she’s dealing with a very unfortunate snowball effect.”
  • “The city has been expecting that they would enjoy a snowball effect in the form of private investments in the community from the improvements they made.”
  • “I’ve had a couple of people respond to my ad for lawncare services, but it’s not the snowball effect I was hoping for.”
  • “Whenever he and I get into a disagreement, the snowball effect starts kicking in. The fight might only begin over something as small as what we had for breakfast, and all of a sudden, we’re on the verge of breaking up.”

Other Ways to Say 'Snowball Effect'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'snowball effect'?

Here are some options that have similar or related definitions:

  • Exponential growth: a pattern of data that shows that greater increases are occurring as time passes.
  • Chain reaction: a series of events where the previous event causes each one.
  • Butterfly effect: the phenomenon where a small, localized alteration to a complicated system can end up having an enormous effect elsewhere.
  • Slippery slope: the idea that a specific course of action (often a very small action) will inevitably cause a chain of related events that will result in a significant outcome, usually a negative one.
  • Domino effect: the idea that one event leads to a series of similar events.
  • Matthew effect: also known as the Matthew principle or the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage, this is the idea that, essentially, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Final Thoughts About 'Snowball Effect'

The ‘snowball effect’ is a concept that refers to the circumstances that increase in magnitude at an accelerating rate. This can refer to something beneficial or something potentially disastrous or dangerous.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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