The Power of a Committed Few

In these days of extremisms on all sides, I’ve been thinking about the power of a committed few. In particular, what percentage of a population is required to change the perception of the majority? Alternatively, when does an idea shift from the minority to the majority?

We tend to think of social progress and change as a gradual, cumulative evolution of opinions with a smooth transition from one point of view to another. However, society is better described as “a series of status quo periods interrupted by abrupt, intermittent, and sometimes violent events.” The events are typically spearheaded by a committed few; so-called inflexible agents who steadfastly retain their opinion regardless of the surrounding environment.

According to scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will be adopted by the majority of the society. Their research showed the makeup of the people in the 10% was not as important as how passionately they held their beliefs. Those who do not respond to pressure to change them were more likely to pass their ideas on to others.

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 a flame.

As change agents convince more and more people, others begin to question their own beliefs, adopt the new view, and spread it even further. Malcolm Gladwell controversially popularized this notion is his book The Tipping Point.

While The Tipping Point was a bestseller, it never fit my own experience in business. Specifically, convincing 10% of employees about the value of a new initiative never has been enough to convince the majority and ensure the success of the initiative. New research suggests a more likely answer is 25%.

Research participants were tasked with naming the image of a face. Participants interacted with one another in rotating pairs until they all agreed on a name. Afterwards, the researchers introduced a committed few who “attempted to overturn the agreed-on name by advancing a novel alternative.” They varied the number of these committed few from 15% to 35% and found the tipping point was 25%. This new research is described in detail in How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions, a book I haven’t had a chance to read yet.

Regardless of whether the exact percentage is 25 or 10, I’m a big believer in passionate teams. As Margaret Mead allegedly said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

It’s a reminder of the power of a committed few. Of course, this power can be used adversely or for positive change. The choice is ours.

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