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The Science of Tipping Points: How 25% Can Create a Majority

Do you have to wait for more than 50% of the group to agree with a minority opinion before it can take over? It turns out, you need far less than that.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #307
diverse crowd

Around 100 years ago, women were legally banned from wearing pants. In fact, women were not allowed to wear pants on the floor of the United States Senate until 1993. In the 17th century, men commonly wore high heels. In the '80s and '90s, you could expect to be greeted with a thick cloud of cigarette smoke when you entered public spaces, like restaurants and even offices. As a child, I rarely rode in a car seat and always slept on my stomach in a crib surrounded by soft, padded bumpers—all things that would get a parent ostracized if not arrested today.

Less than 10 years ago, marriage was not a privilege extended to everyone—and now we have viral videos of two grooms doing incredibly impressive lifts and mashup dances for their first dance. I can now get a care package of cookies delivered to my friend who just had surgery at her door in less than 48 hours and they’ll look better than any that I could make myself anyway. Public opinion is even turning on climate change. In the United States, the majority believes not only that global warming is real but that we should be doing more to combat it.

As much as we feel bounded by them, our societal norms are usually fluid. Sometimes that fluidity comes about because of advances in our knowledge about safety or public health or the irrefutable science behind a warming atmosphere. Sometimes our societal norms are adapting to new technologies. And sometimes we see changes in public perspective because we begin to allow ourselves to accept change and the associated risk.

But where does that tipping point happen? When does a minority opinion begin to become the majority? It turns out that you don’t have to wait for 50% of the group to be on board with an idea for that idea to have any hope of becoming the majority opinion.

A New Tipping Point Study

In a study recently published in the journal Science, Dr. Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania and his collaborators found that the tipping point comes at only 25%. In other words, once a minority view is held by at least one quarter of the group, that minority view will take over and eventually become the majority.

The fact that this so-called tipping point comes into play far below a 50% majority is not a new discovery. In a ground-breaking study from 1977 led by Dr. Rosabeth Kanter, the treatment of women in the workplace was seen to improve only when they reached a critical population of at least 35%. Researchers have also long relied on computational models to test where minority views begin to gain traction. In a 2011 study based on models, researchers found that only 10% of the group had to hold an opinion before it caught on with the others. The Centola study then allows the ability to see the tipping point play out in a fairly large group of people within the controlled environment of their experiment.  

In Centola’s study, 194 people were divided into ten groups and instructed to play an online game where they worked together to develop their own societal norms. As an example, two players would be shown a face and asked to assign a name to that face. They were rewarded with points or money if their names agreed, while the same amount of points were deducted if their names were not a match. Pretty quickly, naming conventions and norms set in that were followed by almost all of the players.

The masterminds behind the study then sent in actors who were committed to names that went against the status quo. Researchers were able to test how many of these actors were needed before they could flip popular opinion in their favor. It turned out that number was around 25% of the group. When at least 1/4 of the group was in favor of going against the status quo, the rest of the group began to follow. If the rabble rousers only made up one-tenth or even one-fifth of the group, however, their alternate opinions would not gain traction against the preset norms.

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