The Tipping Point Numbers for Social Change

These are targets every person or group trying to instill social change needs to know to gauge the likelihood or their success.

Recent research has shown that for true social change to occur, you’d need 7-10% of a population to hold an unshakable belief to be able to change the belief of that population within a reasonable amount of time. This is as long as there isn’t another group with another unshakable belief opposing it, like a different religion (Discovery News, August 6 2011). Combine that with the 1% you need to start a movement (Microtrends, by Mark Penn) and you’ve got two real targets for any organization seeking to create lasting social change. There’s none of those around these days, are there? 🙂

There are all kinds of movements around, for just about every cause or reason you can imagine… and some you can’t! Everywhere you turn there’s a hundred movements trying to convince you of something, it seems! You name it and there’s probably a movement for it.  Yet, very, very few of them are enduring.

Why is that?

The answer is in those two numbers stated above: 1% for a movement, 10% for lasting change (barring an opposing group also at that strength or more numerous).

I know the research says 7-10%. However, it is not yet complete to investigate all big topics where change may be desired, and I’m going to play on the safe side to take the bigger number that would be harder to attain.

Mark J. Penn has stated in his brilliant and entertaining book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, that 1% of a population is all you need to start a movement. That’s a movement that would have realistic potential for noticeable impact by “catching on” in that population, not just any old person or group calling themselves a movement. He drew that conclusion from his research and work experience as a pollster for Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Tony Blair, and as public relations firm CEO at Burson-Marsteller.

One percent isn’t that much when you think about it. That’s means you could start a movement among 99 of your family, friends, colleagues and whoever, and have a reasonable chance of having some impact on some of them. Are you surprised any more there are so many movements around?

You do have to keep the population size in perspective, of course. To get a national trend in the US would require 3.11 million people to believe and/or participate in it. However, the same 1% rule applies. It’d just be a lot easier to find 10 people among 1000 to believe than to try to find 3.11 million people to start a national trend. Start small and let the movement population growth take care of itself.

Move now to the 10% tipping point for lasting social change within some reasonable amount of time. Whether that’s 9 more of your 99 friends, colleagues and family members around you, or 31.1 million people in the US, it’s a lot tougher than the 1% needed for a movement. It is mathematically 10 times tougher, but long as you’ve got the movement established, you’ve got a fighting chance, as long as there isn’t an opposing movement at or above the 10% threshold, like global warming, very sadly.

Assessing likelihood of widespread social change

To do this using the 10% tipping point previously mentioned, you need some relevant data for those sharing and not sharing (whether opposing or indifferent) your point of view. Relevant data means more than just an opinion, and I will use global warming and organic food preference to show this.

Global warming example

Only 47% of Americans in 2011 believe global warming is mainly resultant of human activities (NY Times, June 9 2011). This is only a survey opinion, though. It’s hard to say how many of these people back it up with green lifestyle initiatives, whether public transit, compact fluorescent bulbs, or otherwise. Still, I think I can safely say those who unshakably believe global warming is primarily caused by humans is likely far larger than 10%, so we have the 10% critical mass on our side for change against global warming.

Unfortunately for global warming activists, it’s also likely far more than 10% of Americans unshakably believe global warming isn’t mainly caused by human activities, and they live the lifestyle to prove it, too! In this case, then, the activists’ hopes for a complete social change regarding global warming is still a car pipe dream away. A few hundred million car pipe dreams, in fact.

Organic foods example

According to Reuters and NPR, 58% of Americans would choose organic food over food grown at less than organic standards. The percentages were 63% for those under 35, and 64% for those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher (who could likely afford it more).

Now, I don’t hear a lot of people opposing organic foods like people decrying global warming is a hoax. That doesn’t mean they’d be willing to pay premium prices for organic food on their current budget. However, if they had the equal choice of buying organic food instead of regular food, most would probably happily take the organic food. Their lack of belief in organic food is far from unshakable, though their actions with their dollars do still speak some volume about the strength of their beliefs, and that’s why this is more relevant data than the global warming data above where nothing was asked to tie their belief to their actions. The 58% willing to pay more for organic food also hold a strong enough belief that they would back up their opinion so that’s a more reliable number than the global warming numbers. As a result, between global warming and organic foods, the latter has a much better chance of becoming a social norm in America… and sooner, too.


In the end, if you could get data like that, you can get a whole different perspective on the likelihood of the change you are trying to promote or hope to see happen. And you could be a lot more confident, too, even if the message might be more discouraging than you thought. Global warming belief to be by man was once at 75% in 2001, for example. However, take it as motivation to fight harder.

Still, the important take home point is to start small, get bigger, and find good indicators for your progress along the way. That’s how good policy is done in government and organizations, but you can also apply it to whatever you or your organization is trying to change.

  • Identity your “population” which is realistic and manageable in size to propagate change.
  • Calculate 1% of it to get your “movement” target and work towards it.
  • Work towards your 10% “population” tipping point before moving on to a larger population.
  • Use any and all strategies to spread your message, from influential and/or well-connected people to social media to advertising or whatever.
That’s quantifying a pursuit for change, which is something I’m not sure that many movements, including well funded and established non-profit or non-governmental organizations (NGO) do. Now they can, and I hope they do. It’ll give them a whole new perspective in their work and place!

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