The Ten Percent Rule

One of the most interesting social phenomena is how a small minority of people with a strongly held idea can go on to triumph and make their viewpoint the norm. However, this may not be because the idea itself is appealing, great or advantageous.

The victory of an idea can be due to the nature of groups of people. Among a population, there are usually a few reactionaries and revolutions on both extremes, but for the most part, most people are not ideologues and pretty much go with the flow; in other words, where they’re pushed, manipulated, guided, or what not by an ideological minority. The majority does not feel inclined to stop this process because they just want to get on with their lives. Since no major ideology prevents the masses from at least eking out a living, they will just pay the usual lip services and try to carry on. Freakonomics explains, somewhat dramatically:

What does it take for an idea to spread from one to many? For a minority opinion to become the majority belief? According to a new study by scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the answer is 10%. Once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed….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,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

But of course, it isn’t an automatic thing, this ten percent rule. Motivation and other factors are important too. Jews were about ten percent of the Polish population for a significant part of its history, but Poland did not become Jewish. This is because Judaism does not proselytize actively and the fact that there were many other ten percent ideological groups in Poland to counteract this, like the Catholic Church, the szlachta (nobility), and so on. On the other hand, after the Arab conquest of Iran (636-651), it took nearly 150 years for Iran to become ten percent Muslim. The early Arabs saw Islam as an Arab religion and did not encourage Persians to convert. However, after some Persian nobility converted, there was a greater motivation for them to establish their new religion in their own fiefs. According to Richard Bulliet’s “conversion curve,” Iran became 40 percent Muslim by around 850, and 80 percent Muslim by 1100.

The concept is interesting. Like most attempts to apply exact, positivist standards of science to social phenomenon, there are no exact numbers and determinate situations where everything will work out like the numbers predict. But the gist of it, whether expressed quantitatively or qualitatively, rings true. It is something to keep in mind when thinking about how religious, economic, social, or political ideas prevail. Good news for committed minorities, and…not really news for apathetic majorities, one should so suppose.

Credit: SCNARC/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Credit: SCNARC/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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