Why do some ideas limp along for years and then suddenly jump to public acceptance seemingly overnight? Why can the tiny minority opposed to a government languish for decades and then suddenly succeed? Scientists say they have an answer. The magic is in winning 10 percent of the population.
I never seem to be part of majorities. In fact, I typically find myself in a very small minority — sometimes a minority of one. The people I’m attracted to have never been like everybody else, either. Most of all, though, the iconoclastic ideas that I fall in love with are rarely popular with most people. And when you’re in those sorts of minorities, you get accustomed to staying there.
Social scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are now offering hope for the crazy people like me — and maybe you — who believe in ideas that others reject. Their research suggests that you don’t have to win a majority to change a population. You merely have to find 10 percent of the population to agree with you:
“When the number of committed opinion holders [for an idea] 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 Boleslaw Szymanski, who is director of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”
Five years ago, the Pew Research Center concluded that 9 percent of Americans are libertarians, whether they use that word to describe themselves or not. The same survey concluded that 18 percent are liberal, 16 percent populist, 15 percent conservative — and a whopping 42 percent ambivalent.
What does this mean? It means that if you can define a coherent idea and get 10 percent of the people to be completely dedicated to it, people will follow you — because you should be able to bring enough of the ambivalent people along to form a majority. And when an idea becomes that widely accepted, it’s no longer a weird idea from strange guys who live in mom’s basement. It’s a serious idea that’s on the table for implementing by a society.
You could apply this reasoning to electoral politics, of course, but I’m thinking of it much more broadly. If you could get 10 percent of the population to hold firmly to pretty much whatever your idea is, you have a chance to change the world. Whatever you’re preaching — whether it’s the gospel of liberty or the Gospel of Jesus Christ — it appears the threshold for getting most people to listen to your message is smaller than I assumed.
I want to change the world in multiple ways. I don’t make any bones about that. My ideas aren’t popular with most people. I know that. But what if we don’t have to win everybody? What if we don’t even have to win a majority? What if we only have to “convert” 10 percent to “unshakeable belief” in an idea in order to win the future? That’s a game-changer for those of us who want to change the world.