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At what size does a minority group become influential?

June 07, 2018

When a viewpoint is held by a minority, what size does that minority need to reach to hit a tipping point, where their view becomes widely accepted in the rest of the population? Why a population would first converge on a common norm or belief, and then suddenly shift to another one - an event that could hold great social importance - has remained a question. To date, theoretical studies have estimated a minority population need only be 10% of the population, to create a tipping point that can shift broader views, while observational studies have reported the minority representation needs to be as high as 40%. To better explore this phenomenon, Centola and colleagues performed a series of controlled experiments in which they recruited nearly 200 online volunteers and partitioned them into groups. Within each group, members were randomly paired up, and were tasked to simultaneously assign names to a pictured object (i.e., a face). If they coordinated and both assigned the same name to the object, they were rewarded. These interactions quickly resulted in group-wide coordination. Once a convention was established among all experimental participants, the researchers introduced a small number of members, a "committed minority," into each group, who attempted to overturn the established convention by advancing a novel alternative. They then varied the sizes of the committed minorities. Across all groups, the minority sizes necessary to bring about change ranged from 15 to 35%, with a median threshold of 25%. In a series of additional trials, the authors found that minority groups smaller than 25% could only sway, on average, 6% of the remaining population; however, when minority groups were larger than this threshold size, they could persuade 72 to 100% of the rest of the population to adopt the new alternative.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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