Could The Viral ‘Burnt Toast Theory’ Explain Why Bad Things Happen To You?

The TikTok trend has been used to explain everything from the Alaska Airlines incident to breakups.
People online have been using "burnt toast theory" to make sense out of life's chaos.
Formatoriginal / 500px via Getty Images
People online have been using "burnt toast theory" to make sense out of life's chaos.

If you have ever missed that train or that plane, it might be an inconvenient headache. Or it could actually be the setback you needed in your day, according to the “burnt toast theory.”

Burnt toast theory has become a popular catchphrase to describe the ways that minor inconveniences can actually work in your favour in the long run. As TikToker @Offthe__grid, who popularised the term, explains, “Burnt toast theory is the idea that if you burn your toast before work and it adds 5 to 10 minutes to your trip, it’s actually saving you from something catastrophic.

“Maybe saving you from a car accident, maybe saving me from someone who you don’t want to run into. But this is the idea that inconveniences in our lives, or when something releases us in the universe, it’s either saving us from something more detrimental or pushing us in the direction that we need to go in,” the TikToker said in her video.

People online applied the theory most recently to the Boeing 737 Max 9 incident in which a cabin panel got ripped off midair on an Alaska Airlines flight, forcing an emergency landing. Out of the 171 available seats, there were only seven that were unoccupied, and two just happened to be the ones next to the detached door plug.

“We are very, very fortunate here that this didn’t end up in something more tragic,” the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board has said about the empty seats. “No one was seated in 26A and 26B where that door plug is.”

Although the airline said nobody was assigned the seats next to the hole, people online have speculated that it’s not just good fortune that passengers were not there ― it’s burnt toast theory.

For believers of burnt toast theory, it can provide greater meaning to a seemingly small moment and can be a reminder that life’s detours are all part of the journey ― perhaps even a blessing in disguise.

“In my work as a therapist, a large focus of my work with individuals is on finding strategies and tools that can help them cope with adversity,” said licensed psychologist Lisette Sanchez. “The burnt toast theory can help individuals be better able to cope with emotionally distressing situations.”

One TikToker who applied burnt toast theory to her dating life said that under this helpful mindset, if “somebody ghosts you, great. They’ve spared you from their inability to communicate.”

Why the burnt toast theory is so appealing

Licensed clinical and school psychologist Han Ren said the burnt toast theory can be a way for people to try to gain agency over their experiences and control things that are seemingly senseless or coincidental.

“While I have no idea if this in particular is real, I’m a firm believer that there are lots of unexplained phenomena that are bigger than what our brains can grasp,” Ren said.

Alternatively, Sanchez said the theory may just be describing a common cognitive concept known as hindsight bias.

Under this “knew-it-all-along” bias, people believe that “a past event was more predictable than it actually was, leading us to feel reassured that we did know what was going to happen when an unanticipated event occurred,” Sanchez said.

“If burnt toast theory allows you to let go and have grace for yourself and others during mishaps, then that's a net positive.”

- Han Ren, psychologist

To determine if it’s actually helpful to you, see how the belief is functioning in your life. Does it help you feel more hopeful about the grand picture of your life? That can be a good thing.

“There’s a lot of healing potential in the cultivation of wonder, awe and possibility. In fact, it’s been identified as one of the major healing components in psychedelic-assisted therapies,” Ren said.

So if burnt toast theory is helping you cultivate more patience, understanding, acceptance and ease when life’s irritations inevitably show up, then it can absolutely be a positive boost to your overall well-being, she noted.
“Energy is finite, and if we’re routinely struggling to let go of small annoyances, we’re wasting precious energy that can be spent in more meaningful ways,” Ren said. “So if burnt toast theory allows you to let go and have grace for yourself and others during mishaps, then that’s a net positive.”

The Downside Of The Burnt Toast Theory

Psychologist and executive coach Lauren Appio said she did not want to “yuck anyone’s yum,” but she thought that burnt toast theory “just looks like a dressed-up version of ‘Everything happens for a reason.’”

And this phrase can embody “toxic positivity” when it’s forcing people to feel gratitude and stifle emotions about daily or major frustrations and losses.

“Platitudes like that can be deeply invalidating and hurtful when the ‘reason’ is not apparent ― like when someone experiences a senseless loss ― or when they are used to rush people through uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions, like grief, anger or shame,” Appio said.

Putting too much emphasis on the burnt toast theory may also cause you to believe “things just happen to you and that you have no control over it,” Sanchez said. And putting so much of your successes and failures on outside forces can minimise the agency you do have.

“The problem I have with the misguided use of ‘the spiritual woo’ is when it’s done to bypass a necessary and closer look at privilege, oppression and systemic factors,” Ren said. “Maybe ‘burnt toast’ allowed you to land that dream job, maybe it’s privilege, network, opportunity that would’ve landed you a dream job eventually anyway.”

In other words, don’t make it your blanket belief to explain or excuse larger societal problems.

Or as Ren puts it: “Lean into burnt toast theory if it grants you patience and equanimity, but be wary of using it or any spiritual practice as a crutch or excuse.”