Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.

“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.”

As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”

The findings were published in the July 22, 2011, early online edition of the journal Physical Review E in an article titled “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities.”

An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.

To reach their conclusion, the scientists developed computer models of various types of social networks. One of the networks had each person connect to every other person in the network. The second model included certain individuals who were connected to a large number of people, making them opinion hubs or leaders. The final model gave every person in the model roughly the same number of connections. The initial state of each of the models was a sea of traditional-view holders. Each of these individuals held a view, but were also, importantly, open minded to other views.

Once the networks were built, the scientists then “sprinkled” in some true believers throughout each of the networks. These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.

“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.”

The research has broad implications for understanding how opinion spreads. “There are clearly situations in which it helps to know how to efficiently spread some opinion or how to suppress a developing opinion,” said Associate Professor of Physics and co-author of the paper Gyorgy Korniss. “Some examples might be the need to quickly convince a town to move before a hurricane or spread new information on the prevention of disease in a rural village.”

The researchers are now looking for partners within the social sciences and other fields to compare their computational models to historical examples. They are also looking to study how the percentage might change when input into a model where the society is polarized. Instead of simply holding one traditional view, the society would instead hold two opposing viewpoints. An example of this polarization would be Democrat versus Republican.

The research was funded by the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) through SCNARC, part of the Network Science Collaborative Technology Alliance (NS-CTA), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

The research is part of a much larger body of work taking place under SCNARC at Rensselaer. The center joins researchers from a broad spectrum of fields – including sociology, physics, computer science, and engineering – in exploring social cognitive networks. The center studies the fundamentals of network structures and how those structures are altered by technology. The goal of the center is to develop a deeper understanding of networks and a firm scientific basis for the newly arising field of network science. More information on the launch of SCNARC can be found at http://news.rpi.edu/update.do?artcenterkey=2721&setappvar=page(1)

Szymanski, Sreenivasan, and Korniss were joined in the research by Professor of Mathematics Chjan Lim, and graduate students Jierui Xie (first author) and Weituo Zhang.


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  2. My observations ( empirical ) :
    If 10 – 15% of the people are animated to remove a government or ruler their days are numbered.
    (see for example:
    cicblog.com/comments.html “There is only one source of power – people”, 29 July, 2009)

    The findings sited in this study are along the same lines but with important exceptions:

    The statement: “when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society”

    Is, it is submitted, logically unsupported, since what happens in a society where there are two, or more, groups of 10% each with “unshakable believes” that are diametrically opposed – something that is not inconceivable, especially in communities with large populations, diverse geographically, politically, demographically, etc., for example say we call the groups Republican and Democrat.

    It seems to me that there must be something more at work before what they are proposing comes to play. It might be that as they seems to suggest the 10% may be necessary but I am not convinced it is sufficient.

    It doesn’t seems to take into account the politico-socio dynamics of a real society.

    Lloyd MacILquham cicblog.com/comments.html

    • To the contrary. Democracy would be the only way to allow the system to change to conform to the evolution of prevailing societal norms.

      PS, there is no real world example of a national government that is also a democracy. The closest things are republics and oligarchies.

  3. Tried getting the code from the author; no response.

    Peer review articles like this one should have their code published for replication….

  4. If a person Believes, there is nothing you can say to get him to stop Believing. If a person does not Believe, there is nothing you can say to get him to Believe.

    • While their models are obviously flawed and simplified, the results they supply may very well mimic the overall process in society rather well. Complexities in a large system tend to balance each other out in favor of a more simplistic overall effect, while simplicity in a large system can just as easily lead to complex overall behavior of the system itself. Look into cellular automata for a better understanding of complex systems modeled with simple rules. In fact, their concepts could be explored further through cellular automata modeling.

      While the “10%” is obviously a rounded and approximate figure, the concept itself is very much like how brain cells work and it would be no surprrise if it turned out that interacting brains behave much like interacting brain cells.

      Donald Arthur Kronos – Actor

      (P.S. Don’t let my fans convince you I’m right. There’s not enough of them to make up 10% of your contacts anyway. Hehe)

  5. I’ve heard of that some 30-odd years ago during the Transcendental Meditation movement. I do not know how factual these theories are. Maybe it’s the 10% in the fashion industry, or the 10% in the music industry, or the 10% in the newspaper media industry, and maybe the 10% in the home computer industry, for each of these ten-percenters have had a huge impact on our lives.

  6. This is so dodgy empirically and statistically that it doesn’t even pass the bullshit test. What is a ‘committed believer’, and how do you measure that? Three different types of social network are modelled, none of which conforms to any kind of reality that is recognisable. I could go on, but really I’d stick to the physics, boys and girls, and stop pretending that complex social interaction can be analysed by any kind of nomothetic modelling….

  7. There’s a button for (yuk!) facebook, one for twitter, one for RSS.
    But if I want to print only the posting but not the rest of the page, there’s no way to do that. :(

  8. For us folks in the truth movement, we have all encountered how unmovable the public can be despite overwhelming evidence, My struggle with getting the word out has taught me that the public doesn’t learn things intellectually i.e. they are not swayed by analyzing the available evidence. Rather, they adopt ideas SOCIALLY! I suppose that’s why they’re called sheeple. This research simply confirms what I have already figured out the hard way. As a result of my intensive efforts to wake folks from their slumber, I have swayed a grand total of zero. It’s absolutely amazing yet true.

    My guess is that the “911 was an Israeli operation” meme has hit the proverbial 10% tipping point, since that idea no longer seems to be contested. How that original 10% was sold an idea outside of the Main Stream Media is beyond me but I would certainly be interested in knowing.

        • I was aiming for concision; not courtesy. Creationists, Birthers, Truthers, and the like don’t get reasoned responses. Absent some new and really strong evidence, no sane person will discuss Israel’s “involvment with 9/11” any more than we want to debate Obama’s birthplace or the faked moon landing.
          I felt the need to comment because of the way your post describes “the public” and “sheeple”. . . You seem to be referring to people other than yourself – which I found odd.

    • You say “not contested.” It’s not that the idea has been ACCEPTED; it’s that most of the time, the rational people I know won’t waste their time dignifying the claim with a response. The “evidence” presented to support it is laughable. But since you’ve obviously misinterpreted others’ silence as broad support…

      Just so you know: I am not a Zionist, I have been critical of the Israeli government, and I am sympathetic with the plight of Palestinians. I can’t help wondering, though, whether antisemitism drives some–not all, but some–of the people who continue to make this absurd claim in the absence of hard evidence.