Researchers have been trying to identify the exact tipping point for large-scale social change for years, with results ranging anywhere between 10% and 40% due to various intractable confounds, such as the difficulty of estimating how outcomes might have been different given a smaller or larger number of activists.
Fortunately, a new study recently published in the journal Science might have discovered a way around this problem.
“What we were able to do in this study was to develop a theoretical model that would predict the size of the critical mass needed to shift group norms, and then test it experimentally,” said lead author on the study Damon Centola who is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The study involved 10 groups of 20 participants who were given financial incentives to agree on a linguistic norm, which a group of activists then tried to change.
Results showed that even when the participants had their rewards for sticking with the established norm doubled or tripled, the proportion of activists needed to tip the balance remained at 25%.
“When a community is close to a tipping point to cause large-scale social change, there’s no way they would know this,” said Centola. “And if they’re just below a tipping point, their efforts will fail. But, remarkably, just by adding one more person, and getting above the 25% tipping point, their efforts have rapid success in changing the entire population’s opinion”.
While the model allows for some variability due to such factors as the level of entrenchment of a specific idea or pattern of activity, the new findings directly contradict the long-held belief in classical economics that 51% or more of the population needs to become engaged in order for social change to take place.
According to Centola, a small committed minority may often suffice to drive people away from harmful behaviours, such as Internet trolling and public outbursts of racism, and towards more pro-social patterns like reduced rates of sexual harassment in the workplace or improved exercise habits.
While roughly the same tipping point holds true for both positive and negative change, the new findings could help us become more mindful of how we build our environments and interact with each other both online and in the real world.