A Change in Ideas Requires Fewer People Than You Thought

Some very interesting research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reaches the following conclusion, according to a release: “When just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”

One of the researchers observed, “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.”

If this study is sound, its relevance is obvious. (Thanks to Gary North.)

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  • http://twitter.com/CentinelCo Centinel Co

    “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.”

    Wouldn’t “grow[ing] to 10 percent” be a step on the way to “reach[ing] the majority”?

    I find the hypothesis interesting, but the results seem illogical as stated.

  • Rbagot

    As stated it would take “the age of the universe” to get there. I guess since it has always taken the age of the universe to make it to the 10% it would always be true. It seems though it would make more sense to just state “when it gets to 10% it spreads like flames”.
    Drama maybe makes it sound more intelligent/interesting to a majority of readers.

  • bondservant

    that doesn’t appear to speak well for those of us who call ourselves Christians…

  • Ray Holloway

    I agree with you, Centinel. This is either nonsense or very poorly stated. The implication is that a belief held by less than 10% of a population would take, literally, billions of years to reach the tipping point of 10%, at which time it would then rapidly become the majority belief. This can be punched so full of holes as to be hardly a statement that means anything at all.

    The most egregious issue being that it follows that humans would be no where near holding any beliefs at all, at this point in their history, since the species is less than a quarter million years old. According to this researcher’s statement, we require billions of years to reach just a 10% co-belief. We should be grunting and picking lice off one another at that rate. I’m hoping that the statement was a badly worded attempt at explaining the research.

    Secondly, how does this account for an opposing belief that might already be held by the majority of the population? Is there some other law of human nature in effect that allows a majority held belief to automatically descend down the rat hole of time? This is the logical converse of the 10% theory. The majority belief must have some separate force of human nature acting on it to cause this descent, since a majority held belief is in full compliance with the research’s stated rule that once 10% is reached it takes hold of the majority. In other words, the research (as stated in the article) is self-contradictory when the population already holds some belief in the majority. The theory could plausibly be relevant when a belief is absolutely brand new to the human race, with no competing belief already in existence, or when all competing beliefs are held by less than 10% of the population (up to the 14 billion year point at which one of them has grown to 10% and then claims the majority.) Logically, once any belief reaches 10%, it will become the majority, and it will remain there indefinitely, unless there is some other rule that allows a majority held belief to decay.

    I’ll stop without even touching the problems that are posed if opposing beliefs each capture the minds of more than 10% of a given population.

    It would be nice to think that the liberty movement has this little law in it’s favor, but, as communicated, so far, this research is gobbledygook.

  • Emb021

    Sounds like the “100th Monkey” “theory”, which was debunked by skeptics a couple of decades ago.

  • Ray Holloway

     Also, this from the article,

    “To reach their conclusion, the scientists developed computer

    is a screaming red flag for me. It points to a huge problem with the current state of science: the reliance on computer modeling. This is not evidence. It’s a good first step towards something that might turn into evidence. It sets up the process for real world testing through experimentation, but it’s no use for someone to think their computer model flawlessly considers even a fraction of the dynamics of physical existence; much less that said model’s outcomes are to be seen as incontrovertible proof of some part of the Truth. Modeling coupled with correlation (as opposed to causation) are the two crutches that modern science hobbles around on. One of the most empowering things people can do is require those in power (government, science, education, even businesspeople) to provide hard proof of what they claim or else they don’t get your support (i.e. your money).

  • http://www.facebook.com/soulcyon Sashank Tadepalli

    For some reason this reminds me of the American Revolution.  I’m not sure where I gained this perspective, but I remember that the most important ideas that fueled the Revolution were originally ideas for the “crazy people”.

  • Greg

    its very interesting how all of a sudden woods starts being interested in mathematical research and modeling if it seems to support what he wants it to support.

    woods, you need to read the paper first.  the article talks about agents (the other 90%) who can switch their opinions without costs.  the model is more applicable to marketing for a film (i.e. how a buzz is created around a film) than to political opinions.  also the mechanism is wrong for politics: “The evolution of the system in thismodel takes place through the usual NG dynamics, wherein at each simulation time step a randomly chosen speaker voices a random opinion from his list to a randomly chosen neighbor,designated the listener. If the listener has the spoken opinionin his list, both speaker and listener retain only that opinion,or else the listener adds the spoken opinion to his list.”  this is obviously NOT how politics works, but rather how marketing for a film works!!!

    the 10% never win if the other 90% find switching their opinion very costly.

    come on woods, you studied mathematics…

  • http://twitter.com/AgoristDon Don Childers

    That ties in with a book by Malcolm Gladwell. Wiki overview here: 

    Thanks, this will be a good topic to blog about, as a member of that “irate, tireless minority.” :)

  • Anonymous

    The press release sure doesn’t convince me either. It sounds like they have merely built a computer model of social interaction. Their conclusions will necessarily be based on their assumptions used when building the model.

  • JohnJ

    This was brought up at the Mises forums back in March.

    One member commented:

    “People need to stop citing that study by Rensselaer. I find it
    perplexing how easily people have fallen into its trap. It’s some bs
    algorithmic study of supposed idea propagation which uses some made-up
    model about how people communicate information. They’re essentially
    trying to mimic the job of a socialist central planner, only in the
    field of sociology.”