The Tipping Point When Minority Views Take Over


In the 1970s, the business professor Rosabeth Kanter published an influential account of an American company that had recently recruited women to its sales team. The quality of those women’s working lives, Kanter noted astutely, depended on their representation. When they made up just 15 percent of the workforce, they faced stereotyping, harassment, isolation, disproportionate performance pressures, and other disadvantages. But when they made up something like 35 percent of the workplace, they started shifting its culture in their favor by forming alliances and establishing a counterculture.

Decades of work in sociology, physics, and other disciplines have supported this idea. Small groups of people can indeed flip firmly established social conventions, as long as they reach a certain critical mass. When that happens, what was once acceptable can quickly become unacceptable, and vice versa. Two decades ago, most Americans opposed gay marriage, bans on public smoking, and the legalization of marijuana; now, these issues all enjoy majority support.

How big do minority groups have to get in order to trigger these tipping points? Is it something like 30 to 40 percent, as Kanter and others have suggested based on sociological observations? Or is it as low as 10 percent, as physicists have predicted using mathematical models that simulate social change?

After running a creative experiment, Damon Centola from the University of Pennsylvania says that the crucial threshold is more like 25 percent. That’s the likely tipping point at which minority views can overturn majority ones. “A lot of models have been developed, but they’re often people speculating in the dark, and writing equations without any data,” Centola says. “Our results fit better with the ethnographic data. It’s really exciting to me how clearly they resonate with Kanter’s work.”

Centola’s team recruited 194 volunteers, divided them into 10 groups, and made them play an online game in which they had to work together to create new social norms. In every round, the volunteers within each group were randomly paired up and shown a photo of a stranger. Without consulting each other, each person suggested a name that best matched the stranger’s face. At the end of every round, both names were revealed. The players earned 10 cents if they had offered the same name, and they lost 10 cents if they had entered different ones. Even though the players only ever interacted with one person at a time, as …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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