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

Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

Why minorities can be powerful beyond their sizes.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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?

Conversion Theory: The Science of Minority Leverage

The Conversion Theory: The Misrepresented Minority

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: chan​ging​minds​.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

Examples of the Conversion Theory in Everyday Life

Most big shifts usu­ally start with a small group of ded­ic­ated people:

  • Dietary move­ments. A minor­ity advoc­at­ing for a spe­cif­ic diet or life­style choice (e.g., vegan­ism or paleo) gradu­ally per­suades oth­ers to adopt these prac­tices, lead­ing to a broad­er cul­tur­al shift.
  • Fashion trends. A small group of fash­ion influ­en­cers intro­duces a new style or cloth­ing item, and as they gain vis­ib­il­ity, the trend catches on and becomes widely popular.
  • Political act­iv­ism. Grassroots move­ments, such as cli­mate change act­iv­ism or social justice cam­paigns, can begin with a small group of pas­sion­ate indi­vidu­als who even­tu­ally influ­ence the wider pub­lic and bring about policy changes.
  • Workplace innov­a­tion. A minor­ity of employ­ees with­in a com­pany pro­pose a new strategy, product, or pro­cess that ini­tially faces res­ist­ance but even­tu­ally wins over the major­ity and leads to organ­iz­a­tion­al change.
  • Social media chal­lenges. Viral chal­lenges or trends often begin with a small group or an indi­vidu­al who cap­tures the pub­lic’s atten­tion, and the phe­nomen­on then spreads rap­idly to the majority.
  • Art and music appre­ci­ation. A minor­ity group, such as fans of an indie band or sup­port­ers of a con­tro­ver­sial artist, may ini­tially be seen as niche or uncon­ven­tion­al but can even­tu­ally bring their pref­er­ences into the mainstream.
  • Technology adop­tion. Early adop­ters of new tech­no­logy, such as elec­tric vehicles or crypto­cur­rency, may ini­tially be a minor­ity but can sig­ni­fic­antly influ­ence the broad­er pop­u­la­tion to embrace these innov­a­tions over time.
  • Educational reforms. A small group of edu­cat­ors or par­ents advoc­at­ing for changes in the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem, such as altern­at­ive teach­ing meth­ods or updated cur­ricula, may sway pub­lic opin­ion and lead to wide­spread reforms.
  • Sports and fit­ness trends: New exer­cise routines or sports, like CrossFit or parkour, often start with a minor­ity fol­low­ing and, as their pop­ular­ity grows, influ­ence the lar­ger pop­u­la­tion to par­ti­cip­ate in and adopt these activities.
  • Language and slang. The evol­u­tion of lan­guage and the incor­por­a­tion of new slang terms or phrases can be traced back to minor­ity groups, such as spe­cif­ic sub­cul­tures or region­al com­munit­ies, whose lin­guist­ic innov­a­tions gradu­ally per­meate main­stream communication.

Embracing Minority Influence: A Fresh PR Approach

Minority spokes­per­sons with sol­id con­vic­tions often pos­sess valu­able know­ledge and author­ity, enhan­cing their per­suas­ive abil­it­ies and influence.

This is not to sug­gest that minor­it­ies are always right, nor that major­it­ies are inher­ently flawed. Minorities can hold incor­rect views while still exer­cising a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of power.

Disproportionately, minor­it­ies can con­vert numer­ous major­ity mem­bers to their cause, as many in the major­ity may have merely fol­lowed the path of least res­ist­ance, made decisions without much con­sid­er­a­tion, or lacked viable alternatives.

Additionally, a sig­ni­fic­ant seg­ment of the major­ity might be dis­il­lu­sioned with their group’s pur­pose, pro­cess, or lead­er­ship, ren­der­ing them more recept­ive to altern­at­ive proposals.

Organizations can cul­tiv­ate a sense of pur­pose and accom­plish­ment among par­ti­cipants by align­ing with a move­ment that chal­lenges a stu­pid majority.

So, which stu­pid major­ity will your brand choose to challenge?

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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 gone entirely 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 become your career­’s most influ­en­tial PR strategy.

Read also: The Stupid Majority PR Strategy: How Underdogs Dominate

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.”
— Wikipedia 3Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​H​o​s​t​i​l​e​_​m​e​d​i​a​_​e​f​f​ect

Are we para­noid? Do we see 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

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​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​H​o​s​t​i​l​e​_​m​e​d​i​a​_​e​f​f​ect
4 Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55 – 70.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
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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