Jul 26 2011

How Dedicated Minorities Become Majorities

One of my favorite science fiction series is the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. In this series one of the main characters, Hari Seldon, is a psycho-historian, a scholar who uses knowledge of human psychology to explain and predict major trends in history. I always thought the idea intriguing, but probably ultimately a lost cause.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have attempted to take a baby step toward something like psycho-history – studying how ideas spread through society. In the age of information we seem to be engaged in a pitched competition of ideas, which I think is a very healthy thing for society. So understanding how ideas spread and gain traction can be very useful.

The researchers used computer models of various types of social networks to see what factors contribute to the successful spread of a minority opinion to a majority view. Here’s the punch line – once an idea is adopted by just 10% of the population it reaches a tipping point where it rapidly spreads to become the majority view.

In their models they considered individuals to be either true believers, who were firmly dedicated to the new idea, or general population, who did not hold the idea but were open-minded. This is a critical variable as they did not account for resistance in the general population to the idea, nor to the existence of competing “true believers.” Therefore their models would not be applicable to any idea that has dedicated opponents, or to which there is strong cultural resistance.

They did test various social networks, such as one in which all individuals in the true believer camp are connected to all other believers. Also they tested a model in which a few thought leaders exist at the hub of many connections to rank and file believers. In both models 10% penetration appeared to be the tipping point. Below 10% belief the new idea spread very slowly. Above 10% it spread like wild fire.

The researchers speculate that the primary factor influencing this tipping point is the fact that people generally do not like to hold minority opinions. We are social animals and prefer to fit in with our local social group, so when an opinion is perceived of as being a small minority, there is inherent resistance to identifying with that opinion. Once enough people hold the belief, however, then the bandwagon effect takes hold and social pressures shift from resistance to acceptance.

It would be interesting to compare these computer models to historical cases. I suspect that there is some legitimate insight into the tipping point that their models reveal. At the same time, it seems that there are many other variables they did not account for, such as the opponent groups I mentioned above. Generational culture also plays a role – some ideas just need to wait for a new generation. For example, acceptance of homosexuality is a strongly generational view and seems inevitable at this point just as a consequence of time.

There is also the celebrity effect – having a celebrity spokesperson for an idea seems to add considerable weight. I wonder if this can be quantified. Perhaps celebrities act as the equivalent of a certain percentage of the population, depending on the extent of their celebrity. Scientologists believe this, as evidenced by their active recruiting of celebrities into their ranks.

Similarly there are dramatic events that can propel an idea into the mainstream, or perhaps kill it in its cradle. Tom Cruise’s melt down on the Oprah show may be an example of this. The Terry Schiavo episode seems to have bolstered two groups – right to lifers and libertarians who bristle at government overreach (I think the latter group gained more from Schiavo).

History is quirky and difficult to model in a computer. Public opinion answers to many variables, many of which are difficult or impossible to control. I suspect public opinion is very much like the weather. We can develop computer models and see how certain variables influence the system, but ultimate it follows the laws of chaos and cannot be predicted beyond a certain point.

Hari Seldon’s psycho-history ran afoul of this as well. His plans to control future history with the mathematical precision of psycho-history ultimately failed because of one quirky individual that could not be predicted. (The story is actually more complicated than that, but I won’t include any spoilers for those who have not yet read the series.)

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