The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyCommunication TheoriesConversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

Why minorities can be powerful beyond their sizes.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

The conversion theory is a fascinating psychological effect.

The conversion theory explains why minorities can be powerful beyond their numbers.

How does the conversion theory work?

The Conversion Theory

Conversion Theory

The disproportional power of minorities is known as the conversion theory.

How does it work?

The social cost of holding a different view than the majority is high. This increased cost explains why minorities often hold their opinions more firmly. It takes determination to go against the norm. 1Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

In contrast, many majority members don’t hold their opinions so firmly. They might belong to the majority for no other reason than that everyone else seems to be. 2Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.

“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
Source: changingminds.org

According to conversion theory, while majorities often claim normative social influence, minorities strive for ethical high ground.

Given the power of normative social influence, minorities must stick together in tight-knit groups that can verbalise the same message repeatedly.

Read also: Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

Social Influence Dynamics

These convictions often award minority spokespersons valuable knowledge and authority, which increases their ability to persuade and gain traction.

The minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their cause.

Many majority members might simply be going with the flow because it seems more accessible, because they haven’t put that much thought into it, or because there was no viable alternative when they made their decision.

There’s also a chance that a good portion of the majority might be fed up with the majority group’s purpose, process, or leadership and are, therefore, more open to new proposals.

This is not to say that every minority is correct or that every majority is wrong. Minorities could be objectively wrong while still yielding a disproportionate amount of power.

Combined with the media logic favouring the underdog, identifying and liaising with a strategically chosen smart minority could be a compelling PR strategy.

Being part of a movement overthrowing a stupid majority can empower an organisation. It tends to give all participants a sense of meaning and real accomplishment.

And any blowback from the majority leaders will only strengthen the engagement and communion among those who dare to oppose them.

So, which stupid majority will your brand choose to take on?

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

PR Resource: The Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure publics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their true opinions.

“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the opinion corridor).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

PR Resource: The Hostile Media Effect

The Hostile Media Effect

Do you think that the news media is biased against your beliefs? Well, they might be. And they might also not be.

Researchers have found that individuals tend to see the news media as biased against them—even when it’s not:

“The hostile media effect […] is a perceptual theory of mass communication that refers to the tendency for individuals with a strong preexisting attitude on an issue to perceive media coverage as biased against their side and in favour of their antagonists’ point of view.”
Source: Hostile media effect 3Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect

Are we paranoid? Are we seeing bias in the news media that isn’t there? In short: Yes.

The hostile media effect doesn’t imply that the media is never biased. Still, science shows that opposing groups often regard the same articles as against them and favour their opponents.

The existence of the hostile media effect is scientifically well-established, but we still don’t know precisely why it persists:

“The hostile media perception, the tendency for partisans to judge mass media coverage as unfavorable to their own point of view, has been vividly demonstrated but not well explained. This contrast bias is intriguing because it appears to contradict a robust literature on assimilation biases — the tendency to find information more supportive, rather than more opposed, to one’s own position. […] content evaluations based on perceived influence on oneself vs influence on a broader audience suggested that the hostile media perception may be explained by perceived reach of the information source.”
Source: Journal of Communication 4Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55-70.

Research suggests that the primary driver could be fear of opponents gaining in strength, and the hostile media effect could therefore be seen as a psychological defence mechanism.

Read also: The Hostile Media Effect: How We Demonise the News Media

PR Resource: The Stupid Majority

PR Strategy: The Stupid Majority

From what conversion theory tells us, minorities tend to hold their opinions more firmly. This is reasonable since going against the majority comes at a higher social cost.

But some minorities have an additional advantage:

Some minorities of today are the start of the new majorities of tomorrow (smart minorities).

In contrast, some majorities have an additional disadvantage:

Some majorities of today will be completely gone tomorrow (stupid majorities).

Examples of Stupid Majorities

Stupid majorities are to be found everywhere:

“Riding a skateboard isn’t a real sport!” 
(Stupid majority vs Red Bull)

“Computing is about bits and bytes, not design!” 
(Stupid majority vs Apple)

“Websites and apps can’t produce movies and television shows!” 
(Stupid majority vs Netflix)

“Electric cars can’t compete with gas cars!” 
(Stupid majority vs Tesla Motors)

“Hotels must have hotel rooms!” 
(Stupid majority vs AirBnB)

“Taxi companies must have taxis!” 
(Stupid majority vs Uber)

“Media companies must produce media!”
(Stupid majority vs Facebook)

Identifying a stupid majority (and siding with a smart minority) will clarify your core message and attract highly engaged minority supporters.

Since time’s by your side (the stupid majority will be gone no matter what), targeting a stupid majority might end up being your career’s most influential PR strategy.

Read also: Taking On a Stupid Majority: The Underdog PR Strategy

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.
2 Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.
3 Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect
4 Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55-70.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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