Reaching the Tipping Point

by Gabrielle DeMarco on September 2, 2011


The tipping point. It is a phrase used ad nauseum thanks in large part of the same-named and great book by Malcolm Gladwell. But, before Gladwell there was always the physical tipping point.

Take the see-saw as an example. One side is up. One side is down. Put the biggest kid on the playground on one side. That see-saw is going nowhere. Put a little kindergartner on the other end. Nothing happens. Keep adding on the kindergartners. The see-saw wiggles a bit, give a little. But, when the pile of 5-year-olds reaches a certain point, that next tiny, seemingly insignificant kindergartener changes the entire schoolyard dynamic.  The see-saw squeaks. The big kid is quickly hoisted into the air. The kindergartners stand triumphant.

Understanding the physical tipping point is pretty easy. It is a matter of math – thrust, weight, force, gravity. But how do you quantify something much more difficult to measure? How do you measure the tipping point of an idea?
The scientists in the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) have made quite the stir with their most recent research on that exact topic.What they have found is that a small number of dedicated individuals can have a huge impact on the society in which they operate. In fact, they found that nearly an entire group’s beliefs can be swayed by just 10 percent of its population. Just like that see-saw, the numbers pile up until suddenly there is a major shift – a tipping point. It is an important discovery that could one day be used to help spread important ideas in societies such as health advice or evacuation notices.

Lead researcher of the study and the director of SCNARC, Boleslaw Szymanski, gave a great interview for a popular Canadian radio science program, “Skeptically Speaking”. Hear Bolek describe the findings in his own words at