Science & Technology

New Research Shows How Small a Minority Can Be to Reshape Society

Passionate minorities can change majority opinion. Just look at the women's suffrage movement of the early-1900s in the United States. Once upon a time, the idea of women voting was relatively fringe; today, a higher proportion of women than men vote in U.S. presidential elections. So how big does a group have to be to shift mainstream views? A new study suggests a 25-percent minority is all it takes.

The Power of 25

For this study, which was published in the journal Science, researchers at City University of London and the University of Pennsylvania focused on something much simpler than voting rights: a stranger's name. Groups of participants were shown an image of a random person's face and asked to collectively decide on a name for them. They would receive a cash prize if they could unanimously agree on a name.

The researchers assigned 194 participants to 10 online groups of 20 to 30 people each. In the first phase of the experiment, each group agreed on a name. Then, the researchers "seeded" the groups with a few rebels who advocated for a different name. They started with a modest 15 percent rebel-to-follower ratio. Gradually, they tweaked the number of rebels and found that when they made up 25 percent or more of a given group, they could upend the group consensus. This held true even when researchers doubled and tripled the size of the cash prize the group would get for reaching consensus — which you'd think would make participants stick to the majority viewpoint. But it didn't.

When the rebels made up less than 25 percent of the group, though, they had basically no success. On average, smaller rebel groups converted just six percent of the community to their perspective. (In a group of 20, that means they'd have converted just one other person.) Even groups made up of 24 percent rebels had minimal success. Twenty-five percent was the tipping point, and nothing less would do.

A Recipe for Revolution?

Let's not be hasty — real life is complex. Not all groups work in quite the way the study's online communities did. For instance, the members of real-life groups don't always talk to each other extensively, and sometimes a single group contains multiple disagreeing minorities. That's not to mention that when it comes to the pressing issues of our day, like climate change or immigration, people have more deeply held opinions than they have about naming a face they saw online.

Still, real social change is so complicated that it's hard to model alternate outcomes. What would it have taken for anarchism to go mainstream? For the women's suffrage movement to sputter out? It's impossible to say. By simplifying the issue, researchers were at least able to build a theoretical model for how social norms shift. They don't expect it to work in every situation. When it comes to activism, they view it as a flexible, experimentally backed starting point.

Already, it's pushing back on accepted theory. As lead author Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania explained to Scientific American, "The classic economic model—the main thing we are responding to with this study — basically says that once an equilibrium is established, in order to change it you need 51 percent. And what these results say is no, a small minority can be really effective, even when people resist the minority view."

In other words, there's no need to be defeatist. Even if you don't have nearly the majority on your side, your group could be a hair's breadth from a tipping point.

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For more on this, check out "How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't" by Leslie R. Crutchfield. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Mae Rice August 20, 2018

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