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.
I wonder if the idea that a sitting President can order the assassination American citizens has reached a tipping point in light of the recent Rand Paul filibuster? This might finally be the issue and the incident that causes major splits on both the left and right and forces Americans to recognize that the true divide in this country should be over power vs. liberty, not Team Red vs. Team Blue.
Paul’s filibuster cited the political theory of Lysander Spooner and had plenty of quotable zingers aimed at the president. He asked where Senator Obama from 2007—back when Obama gave stirring speeches on behalf of the rule of law—had gone. But more important than what he said was that he did it. Now these issues have been propelled to the forefront of American policy discussions where they belong.
Fifteen Senators eventually engaged in the filibuster, all but one or two a Republican. The Democrats shamelessly stood by their emperor rather than take a stand for civil liberties. John Cusack, perhaps speaking for many liberals, asked in desperation where the Democrats were on this historic day. They were there, siding with their president’s unbound authority to commit murder.
According to one poll, 41% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) favor the president’s power to kill Americans on U.S. soil on his unilateral prerogative. I’m unsure of the exact breakdown, but it becomes clear that important issues like this transcend traditional party or even ideological lines. A lot of conservatives believe in literally dictatorial powers for the president, even one they hate, and about half the progressives seem to go along with this. Meanwhile, there are people on both sides alarmed by what can only be described as the most significant and frightening presidential power grab in a lifetime.
For liberty to prevail, the left-right spectrum and the two-party grip the establishment has on the American people, dividing them against one another in furtherance of its own power at home and abroad, must be rejected. The McCain-Obama consensus on everything from presidential assassination programs to massive corporate welfare for Wall Street and the centralization of nearly everything in Washington, DC, has to be challenged, and it can only be effectively combated if people ditch party loyalty and embrace core principles.
I don’t ever expect anything good to happen in the Senate, but about a dozen times or so in U.S. history, something truly good has happened there. Yesterday marked one such occasion, and not so much for what it means for the Brennan nomination, but rather what it exposes about American political discourse. The White House has apparently reversed itself, and now says the president has no authority to kill American citizens on U.S. soil. So perhaps Paul’s stunt actually worked in changing or at least clarifying official U.S. policy. We need to reach a tipping point where liberty trumps tyranny–perhaps we have.
One the other hand, it puts people back into the mode of believing that there is hope for change from the top down, by the federal government doing the same thing that has repeatedly failed in the past – electing federal officials. The oligarchy wants to narrow the options that people have to resist them. Hope and participation in national elections is the result. The real tipping point will be when 10% of America demands their local Sheriff is an Oath Keeper. That’s the ball I’m pushing over the cliff.