Using a combination of mathematical modelling, statistical simulation and large-scale data analysis we study the properties of linear regulatory chains (LRCs) within gene regulatory networks (GRNs). Our modelling indicates that downstream genes embedded within LRCs are highly insulated from the variation in expression of upstream genes, and thus LRCs act as attenuators. This observation implies a progressively weaker functionality of LRCs as their length increases. When analysing the preponderance of LRCs in the GRNs of E. coli K12 and several other organisms, we find that very long LRCs are essentially absent. In both E. coli and M. tuberculosis we find that four-gene LRCs are intimately linked to identical feedback loops that are involved in potentially chaotic stress response, indicating that the dynamics of these potentially destabilising motifs are strongly restrained under homeostatic conditions. The same relationship is observed in a human cancer cell line (K562), and we postulate that four-gene LRCs act as 'universal attenuators'. These findings suggest a role for long LRCs in dampening variation in gene expression, thereby protecting cell identity, and in controlling dramatic shifts in cell-wide gene expression through inhibiting chaos-generating motifs.