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What is the Ripple Effect?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 23, 2024

When a person throws a pebble into a pond, he will see a splash and possibly hear the resounding plunk of the pebble. He might notice concentric circles rippling out from the locus point of where the pebble hit the water. The thrown pebble might also have other effects: it might frighten a nearby duck that leaps out of the water, hit another rock and bounce off, or scare a bunch of fish as it sinks into the pond. The person who throws the rock is connected to the pebble, the water and, by his actions, to the duck and the fish. He has caused change through a single and simple act. In education, this concept is known as the ripple effect.

A classwork management theorist named Jacob Kounin coined the term "ripple effect" in 1970 to describe the positive effect teachers may exert on students. According to Kounin, the effect occurs when a teacher asks a student to stop a distracting or destructive behavior. He observed that, when a teacher asked a student to stop a behavior in front of the rest of the class, this affected on all other students in the class. This engagement made other students who might not be paying careful attention to also stop distracting behaviors, promoting better class control.

Kounin suggested that failure to reprimand a student for poor behavior in class caused a negative ripple effect. If one student could misbehave without being told publicly to stop, this gave other students license to misbehave. Through his studies, and his 1970 book Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms, Kounin advocates for understanding this in order to achieve a more disciplined classroom.

Just as the pebble thrown into the pond might have negative unintended consequences, like frightening the duck and the fish, so can the ripple effect, when injudiciously applied by teachers. Students who have behavior problems due to persistent learning disabilities or medical conditions may be negatively affected by having their faults discussed publicly on a frequent basis. A student who is subject to frequent reprimands might be socially challenged and marked out by other students as different or simply disliked by others. Studies since Kounin’s work suggest teachers need to be aware of the possible negative ripples produced by public reprimand.

The term is also used in sociology, economics, and in many other fields to discuss how the behavior or occurrence of one thing can have an effect on many things. For example, an article in the January-February 2007 Duke Magazine discusses the effect of the Iraq war on the American people. The article, “War’s Ripple Effect,” suggested that the war became more personalized when people actually knew soldiers who have either been killed or injured. This, in turn, may shape public opinion regarding the benefits of continued engagement in Iraq.

Economists might use the term to describe the effect of low wages on a housing market, or of a depressed housing market on interest rates. In all, the ripple effect asserts that actions always have consequences, either for good or ill. No action is without reaction, and the ripples, in some cases, may be far-reaching.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By sunshine31 — On Jan 28, 2011

Latte31- I have to say that this is the opposite of what is happening now. Currently, Obama follows the Keynesian economic model in which the government is in control of the economy and supposedly expands the economy through increased government spending.

However, during the Reagan administration in which supply side economics was in full effect there was a creation of 25 million jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 4% at the end of Reagan’s second term.

With Obama we have a national average of 10% unemployment and in many areas of the country like Detroit the unemployment has reached depression levels of 20% or more.

In addition, the millions of jobs that have been lost as a result of the Obama administration will not return for at least five years or more and some will never return at all. This is a really negative ripple effect that we are currently experiencing as a result of Obama's failed economic policies.

By latte31 — On Jan 27, 2011

I think that the ripple effect can also be felt in economics. For example, in the theory of supply side economics it is understood that when taxes are lessened on businesses and the general public a number of things start to happen.

First, businesses begin to expand and hire more workers because they are offered economic incentives to do so. Second, people with more money in their pocket start to spend more money in the economy thus making the businesses more prosperous and causing them to continue to hire more employees.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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