Minority Rules: Why 10 Percent is All You Need

What does it take for an idea to spread from one to many? For a minority opinion to become the majority belief? According to a new study by scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the answer is 10%. Once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed.

The research was done by scientists at RPI’s Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC), and published in the journal Physical Review E. Here’s the abstract:

We show how the prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction p of randomly distributed committed agents who consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence. Specifically, we show that when the committed fraction grows beyond a critical value pc=10%, there is a dramatic decrease in the time Tc taken for the entire population to adopt the committed opinion. In particular, for complete graphs we show that when p<pc, Tc~exp[a(p)N], whereas for p>pc, Tc~lnN. We conclude with simulation results for Erdos-Rényi random graphs and scale-free networks which show qualitatively similar behavior.

From a press release on SNARC’s website:

“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.”

This has implications for all kinds of things, from understanding how religious and political beliefs spread, to why certain fashion trends catch on. And it certainly sheds new light on the seemingly intractable debt ceiling debate, and how a committed minority can drive the entire conversation. The research actually validates the entrenched strategy of the handful of House Republicans threatening to sink John Boehner‘s budget proposal. Turns out if you’re in the minority, you have less of an incentive to compromise than the majority does. Because if you stick to your guns, and reach that crucial 10%, your ideas eventually win out. Just as the graph from SNARC below illustrates:

Credit: SCNARC/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

[HT: Yale Fox]


AaronS

This probably needs to be further qualified to say that this works only if those 10% believe something that is not strongly contestable (e.g., Young Earth Creationism). For instance, what holds Young Earth Creationism back--even though at least 10% of Americans believe it, I suppose--is that it is strongly contested by scientists.

On the other hand, a religious belief that is resonates with people, or is otherwise not disprovable, has a much better chance than something that is strongly contested.

It is not only commitment that matters, but the force of evidence (i.e., does it appear to be the actual truth?). Otherwise, it would be kind of hard to explain how Darwinism overcame so many difficult obstacles to its acceptance. The reason it did was because it has what is (or is at least perceived to be) the weight of the evidence on its side.

I'm sure we can also find some notable exceptions to this "rule" of 10%. Certainly, 5% with commitment and arms and organization vs. 95% without no particular commitment and few arms and less organization (think of 1917) can drive change. Of course, exceptions just showcase the rule.

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VH

The author, Mr. Philips, indicates that the minority opinion will "inevitably" become the majority opinion, once the 10% threshold is crossed. When I read the abstract, hwever, that is not what it says. It only says that it is nearly impossible for the minority opinion to become the majority without 10% commited agents. It says that the time constraint is seriously reduced by the presence of 10%. Infact, and this maybe flawed logic like a Zeno paradox, but the study makes no mention of how long it takes to get 10%, so if the initial goal of the minority is to acheive the threshold 10%, then it turns to the majority, there may be time for that. In any case it isn't certain the minority opinion will become the majority even with 10%.

T'Jere Todd

I am not quite convinced that it is 10% of the population that can change the attitude of the group as much as it is what standing that 10% holds within the population. I believe that the more successful and known the people are the smaller the amount that needs to believe in the idea. If you have 10% of the population that is lower class then the idea is not as easily taken to as if the 10% were upper class and influential. It seems like an easy feat to convince 10% of the population but what we have to remember is what 10% need convincing.

JD Will

I think this works for a time, as in the case of communism, then reality intrudes and unexpected consequences erode the momentum of the movement. Kind of like what is just now happening to the AGW push to de-carbonize our economies.

Mark

If there is a group of 10, could 1 persistent person make the belief the prevailing belief? And if that group of 10 is in turn a sub-group of a group of 100, then could that group of 10 could make the belief the prevailing belief of the larger group, and so on?

Eric M. Jones.

I remain unconvinced.

One day it dawned on me that the reason for limiting the lifespan of humans is that it effectively limits the growth of nutty ideas.

Every birth of a child represents a new possibility for humanity....not necessarily a good one, but at least not the old one.

MinnItMan

There are a lot of worms in this can. I don't intend this to be pro or anti-religion, but rather an indication of the types of questions I would ask, more-or-less along the lines of the customer satisfaction survey scale.

1) I believe in god.
2) I believe in God, whose name I shall not speak.
3) I believe in God and shall have no ther gods before me.
4) I believe in God and shall have no ther gods before me, and shall seek the destruction of those who do.
5) I believe that there is but one way to God, through the Son.
6) I believe that there is but one way to God, through the Son, and that the Holy Sacrament is literally his flesh and blood.
7) I believe that there is but one way to God, through the Son, and that the Holy Sacrament is more-or-less his flesh and blood.
8) I believe I should go to church, regardless of what I believe, because I really don't know, and it's good for the kids.
9) I hate Apple products and how they represent a black box, albeit deceptively designed with exceeding pleasant aesthetics, yet constantly a reminder to me of the requirement to pay tolls for eternity to do the simplest things.

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Joshua Northey

"immune to influence. " is the premise that is doing all the work here.

That is a huge assumption and caveat in the day to day world. Saying we only need to get to 10% with no faltering, and then hang on with no faltering is kind of silly. People falter all the time, even among mormons, and cultists, and muslims.

Much less among shoe wearers...

Joshua Northey

After actually reading this I would say that as presented it is basically pseudoscience. Yes it is a pretty model, but it is telling us almost nothing about the actual world and the comments to the effect that it is are just plain irresponsible.

Alan

The map is not the territory! Results in a mathematical model are not necessarily valid for the real world. They are at best suggestive. Remember the story of the physicist who analysed milk production by starting "let us assume a spherical cow".

Pete

What "happens", is exactly what IS happening. Why do you think that the politics (ecspecially in European countries) always swap from the one aggressive meaning to the other? One decade the conservatives are ruling, the other one the "liberals".

That's exactly what happens. And that's why the media is such a strong tool. Take two sides of the medal, show one side more often to the people and trust me, they'll buy the side more shown. Think of how many % of the news (of your choice ) are about certain poilicians / politics (Depending on wether votes are going on or not ). I bet it's about ( or even more ) 10% of all spots are circling about one person or one theme, triggering the (shown above) effect.

There has been a study about this, that had shown, that the politician shown more often in TV while votes are going on, are most often ( think it was about 80% ) the winners after all. Didn't matter wether the news were more good or bad ones. Can't find it right away, you'll have to search for it yourself. Sry.

Pete

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Greg Slodkowicz

So it's impossible to get to majority without getting to 10% first? Who would've thought.

skepticle

So if Idea A is at 90% and Idea B is at 10%, then B gains momentum, it will continue until B is at 90% and A is at 10%, at which point the trend will reverse... Forever oscillating back and forth? Or does it stall at 50-50?

Doesn't this hypothesis sort of hold that opinion is independent of facts? In other words it only works in situations where there is no known correct answer?

Interesting, nonetheless, but I suspect what they've observed is part of a more complex pattern, not a broad trend.

clif judy

This is exactly what is happening in my neighborhood as to a zoning over lay issue. Nineteen bored, middle aged, unremarkable, average talent, people are joined forces to restrict a neighborhood of five hundred properties , perhaps twelve hundred fifty people who have already express no interest. The persistency is the meat of it all.

So horribly true!

Thanks for a good article. Since it is affecting my life, it is all too personal.

Danielle Gardner

I am starting a ten percent non profit movement called the ten percent. PLEASE follow us on FACEBOOK, we need to all get together and start somewhere!!! PASS THIS INFORMATION ALONG :) ITS TIME!!