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Surprise! The minority rules

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

We use research a lot on this blog to identify potential areas for practice improvement. Sometimes we point to ‘fun’ research that has utility in the courtroom. Research is our friend. Except when it just ticks us off. It’s happened before and it will likely happen again. It certainly is happening now.

Scientists at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have “found that when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.” 

And there is more:

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.

“As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further. If the true believers just influenced their neighbors, that wouldn’t change anything within the larger system, as we saw with percentages less than 10.”

It all sounds very persuasive. But it isn’t true. We’ve seen it a lot. When you disagree with what someone says, you tune them out. You don’t go talk to someone else and if they agree with the first person—then modify your own beliefs. It simply doesn’t happen. We don’t even have to focus on more recent polarizing events.

What about owning slaves? Certainly more than 10% agreed with that. And women’s right to vote? Or child labor? Or union rights in general?

There is a reason the ‘fringe’ is called the ‘fringe’. There are certainly those instances where an idea whose time has come launches change. Think about Women’s Suffrage, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, the Vietnam protests and peace marches, and many others.  The irony is that every evolving attitude starts at that “below 10%” level, and grows.  For the research to suggest that if below 10% it has no chance of succeeding is pretty silly.

These researchers are not simply talking about computer models. They are looking at the spread of opinions and predicting how far ‘opinion’ has to spread prior to being accepted as ‘fact’. They are looking at how political polarization might change the percentage needed for a ‘tipping point’.

Sometimes research is our friend. And sometimes we just need to say ‘please’ and turn to a different article for practical utility.

Xie J, Sreenivasan S, Korniss G, Zhang W, Lim C, & Szymanski BK (2011). Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities. Physical review. E, Statistical, nonlinear, and soft matter physics, 84 (1-1) PMID: 21867136



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