FEATURE14 December 2018

Tip the balance

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Behavioural economics Features Impact

Is it possible to predict the point at which social change will occur? A new paper has found that a quarter of a population could be enough to overturn established conventions. By Katie McQuater


For years, social scientists have theorised that changes in social norms can occur because of small but committed groups of people pushing for change, and that established conventions can be overturned when a critical mass of opinion is reached – the tipping point – leading to social change.

The exact stage at which tipping happens has been debated. In standard economic theory, equilibrium stability analysis suggests that a group will only change if 51% of its population initiate the change, while other studies have suggested 10% of people in a group could be enough to shake it up. In a world where ideas can spread faster than ever via social media, the ability of activist movements – such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – to propagate social change has taken on new significance. 

While the argument for tipping points is persuasive, however, there has previously been no empirical evidence to ...