The Science behind Triggering Tipping Points to Social Change

Labor Organizing Organizing

New Orleans     I’m not sure any of you are ready for this, but we’re going to review today why it is worth keeping your shoulder to the wheel to push forward towards social change no matter the odds as long as you and your associates are committed and can count your base as growing.  A bunch of social scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London came together in an article in Science magazine to try and figure where the tipping point to social changes might be triggered in mass populations and why it happens.

They claim it can be “well explained by the theory of critical mass as posited by evolutionary game theory” which might be pushing you to put your head in your hands, but thankfully they then helpfully translate that into English saying, “This theory argues that when a committed minority reaches a critical group size – commonly referred to as a “critical mass” – the social system crosses a tipping point.  Once the tipping point is reached, the actions of a minority group trigger a cascade of behavior change that rapidly increases the acceptance of a minority view.”  Get that?  For some it might mean simply that there’s a marriage between Lenin and Mao, as Lenin’s determined cadre combines with Mao’s mass base to make change.  For most of us it means that if we keep working and growing, we will eventually get there, no matter how long the odds, as along as we don’t stop fighting – and growing.

For decades I have argued that if an organization truly represented at least ten percent of the people in a specific constituency whether workers or communities in a city, that the organization could effectively speak for the whole.  My argument was based on experience and seat-of-the-pants advocacy.  Reading the Science piece, it seems that this “crucial mass dynamics” thing spends a lot of time trying to establish whether in fact you can make social change once you can move 10% of the people or whether you need 30 or 40% to trigger the tipping point.

Admittedly, the social scientists are talking about “social conventions” like gender roles, smoking less, toking more, long hair, short skirts, and things of this nature, but social change politically is within this same spectrum.  I’ll spare you a deep dive into the meat of their report and how they conducted various experiments to test out these theories, but I’ll share an observation they make which is an encouraging and frightening application of these principles.  They argue that these ideas “might be usefully applied…[by] organizations and governments to use confederate actors within online spaces to influence conventional behaviors and beliefs.”  As an example they cite the fact that the 50 Cent Party in China “has argued that the Chinese government has incentivized small groups of motivated individuals to anonymously infiltrate social media communities…with the intention of subtly shifting the tone of the collective dialogue to focus on topics that celebrate national pride and distract from collective grievances.”

Worth remembering that though these studies show a path for our team, other teams that would oppose social change, including governments, may jump down these roads even faster and more effectively, so we need to learn these lessons and adapt quickly.