Tipping Points And What They Mean For Animals
Researchers in various disciplines have investigated the existence of a “tipping point” of social change. This phenomenon occurs when, after a critical mass of the population comes to hold a minority opinion, that opinion rapidly becomes the majority opinion. Previous hypotheses about the percentage necessary to trigger the tipping point phenomenon have suggested that this point might be as low as 10% of the population, or as high as 40%. However, most of the research on this subject so far has been in the form of theoretical models or qualitative historical studies.
In contrast, the authors of this study took an experimental approach and created a model that empirically demonstrates how the tipping point phenomenon operates. They designed a system of social interactions in which a minority group attempts to disrupt a behavior of the majority group; in this case, the study participants were asked to try to get the rest of an experimental group to change the agreed-upon name used to refer to a particular object. The results of the study suggest that the typical critical mass size is likely somewhere around 25-30%, which is the same size identified in previous studies of social change around workplace gender norms. Importantly, the key feature of the minority group was a deep commitment to their opinion, such that they could not be swayed back to the majority opinion by majority group members.
The authors point out that their study was of social change on an issue with “weak entrenchment”, meaning that the majority opinion group wasn’t deeply committed to the opinion that they held. However, their model suggests that, while the critical mass is likely to vary based on characteristics of the social group in question, even a more conservative majority opinion might only require a slightly higher critical mass to reach the tipping point.
This research has interesting implications for social change related to diet or animals. For example, it suggests that once about 25% of the population becomes committed to the idea that vegan proteins, such as the Beyond Burger, are a desirable alternative to animal proteins, that perspective will rapidly become the opinion of the majority of the population. In turn, social change toward a plant-based diet may rapidly increase once this tipping point is achieved. More research is needed, and animal advocates will surely want to monitor such research closely.