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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69 thoughts on “Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas”

  1. ““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.””

    I got that far. That statement pretty much killed any credibility they had.

  2. So… you have a meeting of ten people. One person has a new idea. The article claims it is a foregone conclusion that everyone will adopt this idea.

    Now, I realize the study is aimed at larger populations, but perhaps they ought to make clearer distinctions between what it does or does not apply to as well. As Yan rightly points out, it doesn’t work if there are opposing sides, and it obviously doesn’t work in very small populations either. It is also unexplained how the ideas break the 10% threshold to begin with if they do not appreciably grow below that point.

    More importantly I think, what population are you aware of that would be 90% open to ANY idea, at least nowadays when information is so much more abundant? I can understand the idea of ancient Rome adopting Christianity because it filled a niche, but what about a new religion of today? I can’t see the same thing happening, and yet we know religions can still crop up.

    I’d be interested to see what they actually tested to figure out that it ‘always’ happens, because it’s not what I’d expect to see in reality at all.

    • The main claim is kind of ridiculous regardless of the size of the population.

      Consider the following scenario:

      10% of a population are devout Muslims.
      10% of a population are devoit Christians.

      Which will be the norm?

      Now, I realize there are lots of objections to this analogy — but this is really just about what the PR is claiming.

      This kind of facile and absurd public summary of scientific work has got to stop if social scientists want to be taken seriously.

      • I think key is that the original 10% have unshakable beliefs. People may call themselves Christian or Muslim but few buy it without reservation.

  3. Take a mathematical theory and lend it weight by mentioning a political uprising. What? Who says the government was overthrown by everyone in the population having the same idea? What idea is that exactly?

    People who participate in such a thing for a myriad of personal reasons, from a strong political conviction to simply hating the way things are, or just hoping that “doing something” will improve their lives and lead to food on the table.

    You can’t oversimplify human motivations like that. It’s not very scientific.

    • The American Revolution was supported by 1/5th of the American population and 4/5ths for the British. That 20% spread like fire. It probably started at about 10%. So….there’s a little bit of comparative analysis.

      • Yeah, and before 10% were on board, it was only 9%, and before that, 8. What’s it up to now?

  4. ‘When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. […] ‘Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.’

    That’s a contradiction. Obviously the number has to be below 10 percent to get to 10 percent, so saying below 10 percent never grows is bizarre.

    Unless you’re saying more than 10 percent of people spontaneously have the same idea at the same time. That’s possible but also bizarre.

  5. most of the people are in need of a form to comfort them, so, when it has become a habit, it is very difficult to come out of this circle. We are in need of someone who suffered a lot, so that we can also connect ourselves with him or her. We dont actually want to go deep into the subject, but there is always a need for a “shoulder” to lean on. The way in which someone met with cruelty done by the cruel hearted people, we want to share our problems with that form. It is purely psycological based atachment. Habit only makes or moulds the characters i believe. There was a need for a religion to console humanbeings who were in distress. When we are clear about the invisible force that operate us all we wont be thinking about anything religious in nature, but would only think about that “vaccum” that holds a lot of mysteries with it. When we burn the dead bodies, we get the ash, but when we dont, the body is intact. But in both the cases, the souls goes out in search of that spirtual world, the one who finished all kinds of responsibilties rest in peace and the one who does not, it has to wander, unfulfilled desires, commitments are to be taken care of. They are in need of someone to pass the message. This earth remains still a question mark.

  6. Yan et al,

    It’s not crap, it’s computer models of networks and the assumptions and mechanisms are well described. There is nothing to complain about. Everyone except you realizes it’s not a quantitative prediction about human society, it’s a vastly simplified but illustrative approximation.

    And it has strong intuitive appeal. It’s very cool

  7. And therefore the earth is still flat and the sun revolves around it?

    One can only suspect that a few reviewers, if there were any. should be rather surprised to learn this considering that these weere once the overwhelmingly dominant views of their time and one could actually be burned at the stake for doubting it.

  8. And therefor the earth is still flat and the sun revolves around the earth?

    Its time for Physical Review E to get some better editors.

  9. Someone posted, “Generally, people of faith are not open minded to other views!”

    That attitude is also common in the sciences and humanities. It’s a human problem, not a religion versus secular one. The noted physicist Max Planck put it this way:

    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

  10. The people commenting about this study (and complaining about it) should not try and apply it to religion. The study states that “Each of these individuals held a view, but were also, importantly, open minded to other views.”

    Generally, people of faith are not open minded to other views! In fact, suggesting someone’s faith might be the “wrong” one usually just pisses them off. What it doesn’t do (obviously) is make them think “Hmmm, maybe everything I have believed in and devoted my life to is wrong. Let me seriously consider turning my life upside down to support your viewpoint”

    It would be more appropriate to consider views such as whether humans caused global warming, whether eggs cause high cholesterol, or whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

  11. I think this depends on the total population of the “tribe”. The article is pretty skim on exact data and experiments. See the book “influencer” for more details on data and analytics (I’m not affiliated in any way – just picked up the book a few weeks ago)

  12. It’s *obvious* that they mean ideas that other’s are willing to believe but are constrained by popularity.

    Just because 12% believe in reincarnation, doesn’t mean their hard held belief will over-ride the other 78% of the population’s hard-held belief that it is not real.

    A better example is this hypothetical situation, lets say no one had any info on lead and health. At some point, 10% of the population believes lead could be bad for you but there’s no proof yet. But 10% of the population knows someone who worked with lead and is now sick.

    Now you have 10% of the population with a firm belief that lead can be bad, so the idea spreads really really fast.

    And unless someone creates a counter-claim stating lead is good, people will continue to assume it’s bad.

    Again, hypothetical as we all know it’s bad for us.

  13. Sounds like the Pareto Principle, but at 10-90 instead of the accepted 20-80 of the Pareto Principle. Once you get 10 percent of the group involved, you’re pretty much done. Maybe the 10 percent is to get conviction of at least 50 percent (the majority), so that makes sense along with the Pareto Principle.

  14. To respond to some earlier comments, I think this only applies to ideas that can spread virally. This is heavily dependent on social conditions; religion, for instance, isn’t very good at this nowadays because existing . On the other hand, if you go back 2000 years to the Roman Empire, there was no meaningful religion for most of the population, so Christianity was able to spread thanks to this phenomenon. (This is also why it never really caught on in the East; they did already have meaningful religions.) Similarly, the idea of a revolution can spread easily in a political climate like the current one in the Middle East.

    • You may have a point, it was the “always” claim that irritated me as stated in the article, it sounds like they were saying that if a small group believed something then it was a done deal that everyone else would eventually agree, and I am pretty sure that this is not the case.

    • the Roman Empire, there was no meaningful religion for most of the population, so Christianity was able to spread thanks to this phenomenon.

      Unless you have some new and different usage of the word “meaningful”, that statement is utter hogwash.

      Christianity took hold because it did a better job of meeting the physical and emotional needs of the disenfranchised: slaves, the poor and women.

      • And the 20% (estimated) of the Roman Empire that was Jewish or Jewish affiliated (yes, that was allowed) thought their religion was pretty meaningful too.

  15. Hey… I got an idea. Why don’t some of you actually do an experiment instead of just saying “utter crap” and offering no alternative research? Just a thought…

    • Because I can use common sense. If 10% of people in the US are Buddhists and 10% are Muslim does that mean the majority will one day be Muslim and Buddhist? I don’t consider either of those things as being demonstrated based on what just read. By the way, the burden of proof usually lies with those who make the claim. Its not my job to come up with research that disproves as silly claim. It is THEIR job to support their own claims.

      • Well… it could be that you don’t actually have any. I’d rather base my ideas of research and not just what some random irate internet prick thinks.

      • And you are probably stupid enough to think this “story” is that same as the “research”.

        What a way to jump to conclusions.

        • Well, you *could* just fault the reasoning I gave above instead of getting so upset. So if two groups of people, both greater than or equal to ten percent of the population, believe different things, does this mean that they both come true?

      • Read the article again :). It says that they have not yet looked into a population with polarization (people devoted to opposite views, like your Buddhist/Muslim example) and that they wish to look into that in the future. Their experiment -only- applies to populations where there are 10% people with a hard core belief and 90% who are open and have no real previous opinion. Also, because of the way the computer model was created, it will only work on a macro scale. On a micro scale all the other factors have too much influence IMHO.

        • That makes more sense, but would this *always* be the case as the article states? That sounds like it is being out rather strongly.

        • Outside of largely homogeneous cultures, one can rarely find population groups not polarized. And given how people can become polarized in more than one cultural identity (religion, politics, race, class), this study just reads as too simple to be useful right now, but I do look forward to results of the larger scale studies.

  16. “‘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.'”

    Okay, I’ll bite. If there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas when those who hold them number less than ten percent, how do they manage to increase their numbers in order to break the ten percent barrier?

  17. And what happens if 10% or more hold an unshakable belief one way, and another 10% or more hold an unshakable belief the other way? Such as with Abortion vs. Right to Life?

  18. Utter crap. If twelve percent of the people in a country believe in reincarnation, for example, does this mean it will become the belief of the majority? This is very weak logic. Change “always” to “sometimes” and you might have a case, although that wouldn’t actually be telling you much.

    • absolutely not…each one if he thinks with rational views wont accept what others believe strongly about a faith, its because, each one has different qualities and opinions. In the ancient period only trees with medicinal qualtiies were worshipped ex.margosa tree, banyan, wood apple tree etc etc. in india. Even now women without issue worship some trees to get blessing, had they been left to worship the nature, then there wont be anything called idols in india. Nature is God and God is Nature. But today because of idols we have lost our love and friendlyness towards humanity. Each of us instead of behaving like a human behave like people belong to a particular community. It creats tension among people. The selfish people with selfish desires always use this passion and affection of people towards religion exploit them and always hurt their feelings. A new born baby do not know about its religion, but we humanbeing only teach it and preach about how to follow a faith. So, we only plant the seed in its brain that grows and grows and it look at the society with narrow mindedness. In south india, people are always attached to their belief and caste especially and it create tension everywhere. All are with same coloured blood but their brain only make them act diferently. So, the culprit here is the “BRAIN”.

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