Skip to content

Don’t Try To Shape Opinions, Shape Networks

2023 March 12

Anybody who has ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person. To persuade dozens or hundreds—much less thousands or millions—to change their mind about something important seems like a pipe dream. Yet that doesn’t stop people from spending significant time and energy to do just that.

In fact, there is a massive industry dedicated to shaping opinions. Professionals research attitudes, identify “value propositions,” craft messages and leverage “influencers” in the hopes that they can get people to change their minds. Yet despite the billions of dollars invested each year, evidence of consistent success remains elusive.

The truth is that the best indicator of what people do and think is what the people around them do and think. Instead of trying to shape opinions, we need to shape networks. That’s why we need to focus our efforts on working to craft cultures rather than wordsmithing slogans. To do that, we need to understand the subtle ways we influence each other.

The Influencer Myth

Malcolm Gladwell, blockbuster book, The Tipping Point, popularized his “Law of the Few,” which he stated as: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” This reenergized earlier ideas about opinion leaders, the supposedly secret people who somehow have outsize influence on others.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the communications industry quickly jumped to promote the idea of secret “influentials” living among us. Clearly, if you’re looking to shape opinions, being able to identify such people would be incredibly valuable and, it goes without saying, firms who could claim an expertise in leveraging those powers could earn outsized fees.

Yet the actual evidence that these people actually exist is incredibly thin. Even the original opinion leader research found that influence was highly contextual. In a more recent study of e-mails, it was found that highly connected people weren’t necessary to produce a viral cascade.  In another, based on Twitter, it was found that they aren’t even sufficient. So called “Influentials” are only slightly more likely to produce viral chains.

Duncan Watts, co- author of both studies and a pioneer in the science of networks told me, “The Influentials hypothesis, is a theory that can be made to fit the facts once they are known, but it has little predictive power.  It is at best a convenient fiction; at worst a misleading model.  The real world is much more complicated.”

The Framingham Heart Study

While there is little evidence to suggest that there are special people secretly influencing our attitudes and decisions, there is abundant evidence that completely normal people exert influence all the time. We may ask our nephew about what app to download, or a co-worker about where to go for dinner. We all have people in our lives that we go to for advice about particular things.

Decades of scientific research suggests that the best indicator of what we think and do is what the people around us think and do. A famous series of studies performed in the 1950s—replicated countless times since then—found that when confronted with a overwhelming opinion, people will conform to the majority even if it is obviously wrong.

More recent research indicates that the effect applies not only to people we know well, but that extends even to second and third-degree relationships. So not only our friends, but the friends of their friends as well—many of whom we may have never met—influence us. This effect not only applies to our opinions, but also things like smoking and obesity and behaviors related to cooperation and trust.

The evidence is, in fact, overwhelming. Working to shape opinions is bound to be a fruitless exercise unless we are able to shape the networks in which ideas, attitudes and behaviors form. Fortunately, there are some fairly straightforward ways to do that.

Starting With A Majority

When we’re passionate about an idea, we want it to spread. We want to tell everyone, especially, for psychological reasons which are not quite clear to me, the opposition. There is some strange quirk embedded in human nature that makes us want to try to convince those who are most hostile to the proposition. We want to convince skeptics.

As should be clear by now, that’s a very bad idea. An idea in its early stages is, almost by definition, not fully formed. It hasn’t been tested and doesn’t have a track record. You also lack experience in countering objections. Taking an idea in its infancy into hostile territory almost guarantees failure.

The simple alternative is to start with a majority, even if that majority is only three people in a room of five. You can always expand a majority out, but once you’re in the minority you’re going to get immediate pushback. Go out and find people who are as enthusiastic as you are, who are willing to support your idea, to strengthen it and help troubleshoot

That’s how you can begin to gain traction and build a sense for shared purpose and mission. As you begin to work out the kinks, you can embark on a keystone project, show some success, build a track record and accumulate social proof. As you gain momentum, you will find that there is no need to chase skeptics. They will start coming to you.

Small Groups, Loosely Connected, But United By A Shared Purpose

The biggest misconception about change is that once people understand it, they will embrace it and so the best way to drive change forward is to explain the need for change in a convincing and persuasive way. Change, in this view, is essentially a communication exercise and the right combination of words and images is all that is required.

Even assuming that it is practical to convince people that way, by the same logic they can just as easily have their mind changed right back by counter-arguments. So even successful shaping opinions is, at best, a temporary solution. Clearly, if we are going to bring about sustainable change, we need to shape not just opinions, but networks as well.

In my book Cascades, I explained how small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared purpose drive transformational change. It happens gradually, almost imperceptibly, at first. Connections accumulate under the surface, barely noticed, as small groups slowly begin to link together and congeal into a network. Eventually things hit a tipping point.

The good news is that decades of research suggest that tipping point is much smaller than most people think. Everett Rogers’ “S-curve” research estimated it at 10%-20% of a system. Erica Chenoweth’s research calculated the tipping point to be at 3.5% of a society. Damon Centola at the University of Pennsylvania suggests the tipping point to be at 25% of an organization.

I would take each of these numbers with a grain of salt. The salient point here is that nowhere does the evidence suggest we need anything close to 51% support for change to take hold. Our job as leaders is to cultivate networks, help them connect and inspire them with a sense of shared values and shared purpose.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!

Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS