Whether it’s avocado toast and a flat white or the legalization of gay marriage and the decriminalization of cannabis, what does it take to turn an idea mainstream? Well, scientists think they might have the answer, publishing their findings in the journal Science.
If you want to introduce a three-day weekend or bring back JT’s frosted tips, you will need to get 25 percent of the population in line with your thinking. One in four is the magic number – or tipping point – that pushes a niche idea into the mainstream, according to the study.
Damon Centola, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and his team recruited 200 people to play an online game. The participants were shown a face and asked to give it a name. But to win, they had to come up with the exact same name as an anonymous partner. The participants weren’t allowed to reveal their name until after the round had ended.
Unsurprisingly, the odds of picking the same name in the first round were extremely low. However, by the 25th round – each was played with a different partner – every single person in the group chose the same name: Simone. The researchers noted that between rounds 10 and 20, participants started picking from a bank of previously selected names to improve their odds of winning.
To mix things up a bit, the researchers then added a second group of participants to the study. These troublemakers wanted to name the face “Mary”.
When the new group made up just 17 percent of the population, they failed to sway the majority opinion. Simone kept its status as the preferred name. When their numbers increased to 31 percent of the population, however, this changed and Mary upended Simone, becoming the winning name. The researchers played around with the numbers of the two different groups to find the tipping point, concluding that 25 percent or one in four was the magic number required to change a majority opinion.
This process may be what catapulted trends such as unicorn toast and skinny jeans into the mainstream, but it does not apply to everything, Centola added. Religious and political beliefs (think: abortion rights, gun laws, and Donald Trump) are not so easily changed because they are so ingrained in a person’s ideology.
The study also relies on the fact that all people are equal, a fact that sadly doesn’t apply to the real world. A person with money and connections, fairly or not, is bound to have more sway than the average man or woman on the street, which means the magic number could shift depending on how influential the minority group is.
What the study does show is that personal preference is “not just about what individuals want,” Emily Erikson, a sociologist at Yale University not involved in the work, told Science Magazine. Instead, “There’s this huge social dynamic that changes people’s actions.”