Trials varied according to the size of the committed minority (C) that attempted to overturn the established convention. In total, we studied the dynamics of critical mass in 10 independent groups, each with a committed minority of a fixed size. Across all 10 groups, the sizes of the committed minorities were in the range (15% < C < 35%).
We recruited 194 subjects from the World Wide Web and placed them into online communities where they participated in a social coordination process (27, 28). Upon arrival to the study, participants were randomly assigned to participate in one of 10 independent online groups, which varied in size from 20 to 30 people. In a given round of the study, the members of each group were matched at random into pairs to interact with one another. Within each pair, both subjects simultaneously assigned names to a pictured object (i.e., a face), attempting to coordinate in the real-time exchange of linguistic alternatives (20, 25). If the players entered the same name (i.e., coordinated), they were rewarded with a successful payment; if they entered different names (i.e., failed to coordinate), they were penalized. In each community, individuals interacted with each other over repeated rounds of randomly assigned pairings, with the goal of coordinating with one another (25). Participants were not incentivized to reach a “global” consensus but only to coordinate in a pairwise manner with their partner on each round. Participants were financially rewarded for coordinating and financially punished each time they failed to coordinate with each other (25). Once a convention was established for the entire population, the incentives strongly favored coordinating on the equilibrium behavior.After each round, the participants could see only the choices that they and their partner had made, and their cumulative pay was updated accordingly. They were then randomly assigned to interact with a new member of their group, and a new round would begin. These dynamics reflect common types of online exchanges, in which community members directly interact with the other members of a large, often anonymous population—using, for instance, chat interfaces or messaging technologies—leading them to adopt linguistic and behavioral conventions that allow them to effectively coordinate their actions with other participants’ expectations (20, 29 ,30). Consistent with these types of settings, participants in the study did not have any information about the size of the population that was attempting to coordinate nor about the number of individuals to whom they were connected (9, 20, 23). In every group, this interaction process quickly led to the establishment of a group-wide social convention, in which all players in the network consistently coordinated on the same naming behavior (20, 25). Once a convention was established among all experimental participants, we introduced a small number of confederates (that is, a “committed minority”) into each group, who attempted to overturn the established convention by advancing a novel alternative (25).
Regarding the “3.5% rule”, [Chenoweth] points out that while 3.5% is a small minority, such a level of active participation probably means many more people tacitly agree with the cause.
Thomas Malone, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Collective Intelligence and author of the book Superminds, has recently applied the theory to teams of people – in the laboratory, and in real-world, including the editors of Wikipedia entries. He has shown that the estimates of the integrated information shared by the team members could predict group performance on the various tasks. Although the concept of “group consciousness” may seem like a stretch, he thinks that Tononi’s theory might help us to understand how large bodies of people sometimes begin to think, feel, remember, decide, and react as one entity.