Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas

In a study of networking, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY developed computer models showing that when 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, that belief will be adopted by the majority of society. Their study of minority belief becoming majority opinion appears in the July 22, 2011 online edition of the journal Physical Review E.

This illustration shows the tipping point where minority opinion (red) quickly becomes the majority opinion. Once the minority opinion reaches 10 percent of the population, the network quickly changes as the minority opinion takes over the original majority opinion (green). Image Credit: SCNARC/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The scientists who conducted the study are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer. Director Boleslaw Szymanski said:

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. Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.

The Arab Spring events in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 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.

Tunisian revolution. The image was taken on January 22, 2011. 

The researchers discovered that the type of network and the location where an opinion starts and spreads in society have little bearing on the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion.

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 was 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.

Sameet Sreenivasan, a SCNARC research associate and paper author, said:

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.

To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models talked to one another about his or her opinion. If the listener held the same opinion as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinions were 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.

Sreenivasan said:

As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change. People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further.

Co-author Gyorgy Korniss said 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. 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 also want to study how the percentage might change in a model of a polarized society.

Bottom line: Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed computer models of various types of social networks to test for the tipping point at which minority opinion becomes the majority opinion. Their study showed that when 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, this belief will be adopted by the majority of society. 

Results of the study appeared in the July 22, 2011, online edition of the journal Physical Review E.

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