This is fascinating. According to research, once around 10% of the population believe firmly in an issue, then even though a minority, it is enough of the population to create a tipping point to influence a societal-wide change:
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.
“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”
As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”
However it leaves as many questions as it answers; what do we mean by ‘committed opinion holders’? Is that people willing to die for that belief? When happens when there are competing 10%s of the population with opposing ideas?, such as in the US culture wars? I had been told before that during the American War of Independence, around 10% of the population supported the rebels and around 10% the English crown and the other 80% waiting around to see where the balance would tip, though I have no reference for that, can’t remember where I heard it!