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.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #307
diverse crowd

So what was happening? The study's authors suggest that most likely, the original, uncommitted players begin to encounter seemingly larger groups of otherwise committed actors (those sent in to stick to their dissenting views), and begin to flip. Once more and more flip, it no longer feels risky to join in the group attempting to change the status quo.

For example, I would love to wear my pajamas to work but I realize this is, unfortunately, socially unacceptable. However, if a few of my coworkers wore their pajamas to work and were steadfast in the opinion that it was okay to do so, I’d feel more secure in not being the only one, and I would be more likely to join them. (Ahem, I hope some of my coworkers are listening. Let’s make this happen!)

There are two important caveats to note, however, when thinking about the results of this study in the context of the political issues that divide our societies today. First, the players in this study were just that—players. It is very reasonable to expect that you can more easily convince someone playing a game to change their opinion on an arbitrarily-assigned name than, say, convincing your uncle to change his mind on universal healthcare.

Centola and his colleagues attempted to address this potential bias by providing incentives for community members in virtual communities they created via models to not change their minds. In that case, it does become harder to shift public opinion, but only by a little bit. The models predict that a higher minority percentage of 30% is needed for a tipping point, which, while higher than 25%, is still intriguingly far below a majority at just above 50%.

The second important difference between the study and reality is that all participants in the study approach the decisions with the same amount of power. There is no established hierarchy of race, gender, sex, wealth, etc., that lends more sway behind some opinions over others as there is in real life.

How Does Minority Opinion Become Majority?

The results of these tipping point studies remind me of one of my favorite TED talks called How to Start a Movement by Derek Sivers. If you want to check it out, the whole talk is only three minutes long. In the talk, he shows footage of a lone dancer at an outdoor concert, flailing away as everyone else around him remains seated. He is alone in this pursuit for quite a while until finally one other person joins him. Soon after the second dancer has joined, others follow, until the majority of concert-goers are on their feet and moving their bodies to the rhythm.

As Sivers points out, sure, the first dancer had to be brave and had to choose an action that wasn’t hard for potential followers to do, but until the second dancer joins him, he’s just a lone weirdo. The second dancer is really the one who starts a movement because now the risk is lowered for others to join, as they soon do.

So next time you see a lone weirdo doing something that looks like fun or doesn’t actually seem that weird to you, consider joining them. You may just be the person that tips the minority scale from 24% to 25%.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.comImage of diverse crowd © shutterstock


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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