The Activist Tipping Point: how many people do you need on your side?

I've written a lot over the past few months about influence: what it is, how it works, and how it can be used to our advantage. For example, in "Nobody Cares Until Everybody Cares," I argued that activists (or anyone who is trying to convince a group to adopt a particular position) should "go after the middle."

Basically, it's really hard to convince someone who has a strong opinion on a subject to believe otherwise. However, activating neutrals to believe in your cause can slowly but surely put social pressure on opponents.

When I published that piece, I realized that the next logical question was even more important: how much of "the middle" do you need to convince to create change?

It's a fascinating question with a pretty logical answer. If you want to create change, you need the majority on your side. So the magic number will always be 51%.

Taken literally, that is the only correct answer. But that doesn't mean that activists actually need to do the work of convincing 51% of the population. There is a "tipping point" that, once met, makes large-scale diffusion of the idea inevitable. Once this magic number of people is convinced, it's inevitable that change will happen.

And it turns out that for some situations, that magic number is much lower than 51%...

Wait, but this isn't what Malcolm Gladwell was talking about!

In Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," he defines a tipping point as "that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire."

Gladwell didn't enumerate the effect, but he certainly attempted to define why and how it happens. To do so, he outlined three rules that govern all tipping points:

  1. Once the tipping point is reached, mass diffusion of the idea is almost inevitable.
  2. There are certain types of people (influencers, those with large networks, etc.) who are more responsible for getting ideas to "tip".
  3. An idea will only reach a tipping point if it is "sticky" enough (i.e. if people actually like it).

If you haven't read the book, you should. It's very entertaining. However, it's a major oversimplification of "tipping points".

What if the idea has a ton of pre-existing push-back? What if the population distrusts certain influencers but has a disproportionate amount of trust in others? What if any idea is appealing to one group but not another?

These are tough questions. Quite frankly, we don't have the answers to them. But in very specific situations, researchers have managed to quantify a tipping point.

The 3.5% Rule: The Key to Serious Political Reform

In the mid-2000s, a political scientist at Harvard University, Erica Chenoweth, looked around at her field and realized that nobody had compared the overall success of violent vs. non-violent protests. So she and a colleague, Maria Stephan, conducted a review of 323 campaigns, both violent and non-violent, from 1900 to 2006.

There were two key findings:

  1. First, non-violent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns: they led to political change 53% of the time versus 26% for violent campaigns.
  2. Second, and more relevant to the purposes of this piece, not a single campaign that had the active participation of at least 3.5% of the population failed.

For serious political reform (regime change, major policy change, etc.) 3.5% is the magic number. That's our tipping point.

The link between the two findings serves as a fascinating explanation. Chenoweth argues that the reason non-violent protests (such as strikes, rallies, sit-ins, etc.) are more successful are because people are more likely to participate. People don't feel like they are sacrificing their morals — or their lives. Thus, these types of campaigns are more likely to reach the 3.5% threshold.

Keep in mind that 3.5% of active participation is no easy feat. In America, that's roughly 11 million people, which is about the population of the entire state of Ohio and larger than the population of New York City.

That said, it makes sense. Even if we considered use of a hashtag "active participation" (I wouldn't), the "March For Our Lives" hashtag was only used 3.6 million times across all platforms. While there is a lot of media outrage, very few Americans have actively participated in gun control campaigns nationwide.

The 25% Rule: The Key to Changing Social Norms

The 3.5% rule us a great framework for thinking about large-scale political action, but what about things that don't involve political action?

A study from the University of Pennsylvania looked into how many people it took for general public attitude on a subject to change. Here's a quote:

When a minority group pushing change was below 25% of the total group, its efforts failed. But when the committed minority reached 25%, there was an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and very quickly the majority of the population adopted the new norm. In one trial, a single person accounted for the difference between success and failure.

Essentially, the "activist group" in these situations need to be 25% of the overall population in order for widespread change to occur. However, the definition of "activist" here is much looser than in the 3.5% definition.

For example, to change public opinion on a word (e.g. sucker vs. lollipop) you would need 25% of the group to try to change the name in order to hit the tipping point.

Again, there are limitations here:

  1. The study was conducted on ideas that people don't really care that much about (in this case, names). Thus, there was no real push-back other than habit. Had it been a more controversial topic (e.g. abortion, immigration, etc.) I'd imagine the results would be drastically different.
  2. The effects here are localized. With the 3.5% rule, you're dealing strictly with governments — if you wanted to change policy in Illinois, you'd need 3.5% of Illinois residents to be actively protesting. In the case of social norms, however, there is nobody in power to hold those norms in place — it's simply a societal habit. That said, getting 25% of your local college campus might be the tipping point at your school, but we can't necessarily assume those effects will spill outside of that community.

No Silver Bullet

That said, there are a lot of variables at play in any campaign or movement. None of these numbers are going to hold up across the board in the real world.

However, these frameworks are super useful in carving out and end goal for any campaign in which you need to win over peers or authority, whether it be the workplace, local government, or a presidential campaign.

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this! Is there any other research out there on this topic? Any context we should know about? Let me know!