Creating change: If 25% believe, the rest will go along

June 12, 2018

When the size of a minority committed to social change—such as the Me Too movement or Black Lives Matter or March for Our Lives—reaches 25%, that’s a tipping point for transition and transformation in the large public, based on findings of a study conducted by Annenberg School for Communication researcher Damon Centola and released on June 7.

The study, just published in the journal, Science, answers the question, “When organizations turn a blind eye to sexual harassment in the workplace, how many people need to take a stand before the behavior is no longer seen as normal ?”

“The classical model,” Centola says, “would dictate that 51% or more is needed to initiate real social change. We found, both theoretically and experimentally, that a much smaller fraction of the population can effectively do this.”

This idea of a social tipping point applies to standards in the workplace, and any type of movement or initiative, Centola believes.

Online, people develop norms about everything from what type of content is acceptable to post on social media to how civil or uncivil to be in their language. We have recently seen how public attitudes can and do shift on issues like gay marriage, gun laws, or race and gender  equality, as well as what beliefs are or aren’t publicly acceptable to voice.

During the past 50 years, many studies of organizations and community change have attempted to identify the critical size needed for a tipping point, purely based on observation. These studies have speculated such tipping points can range anywhere between 10% to 40%.

Drawing on more than a decade of experimental work, Centola and his three research associates developed 10 groups of 20 participant—each of whom was given a financial incentive to agree on a linguistic norm. Once a norm had been established, a group of confederates—a coalition of activists that varied in size—then pushed for a change to the norm.

When a minority group pushing change was below 25% of the total group, its efforts failed. But when the committed minority reached 25%, there was an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and quickly a majority of the population adopted the new norm. In one trial, a single person accounted for the difference between success and failure.

The researchers also tested the strength of their results by increasing the payments people received for adhering to the prevailing norm. Despite Centola and his colleagues doubling and tripling the amount of money for sticking with an established behavior, a minority group could still overturn the group norm, the researchers found.

“When a community is close to a tipping point to cause large-scale social change, there’s no way they would know this,” says Centola, who also directs Annenberg’s Network Dynamics Group. “And if they’re just below a tipping point, their efforts will fail. But remarkably, just by adding one more person, and getting above the 25% tipping point, their efforts can have rapid success in changing the entire population’s opinion.

The implications for large-scale behavior change are the subject of Centola’s new book, How Behavior Spreads, published this month by Princeton University Press.

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