A new study in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research finds that it is rarely the case that highly influential individuals are responsible for bringing about shifts in public opinion.

Instead, using a number of computer simulations of public opinion change, Duncan J. Watts (Columbia University) and Peter Sheridan Dodds (University of Vermont), find that it is the presence of large numbers of “easily influenced” people who bring about major shifts by influencing other easy-to-influence people.

“Our study demonstrates not so much that the conventional wisdom is wrong ... but that it is insufficiently specified to be meaningful,” the researchers write. “Under most conditions that we consider, we find that large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials, but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals.”

Instead of a model in which opinion flows only from the media to influentials, and then only from influentials to the larger populace, Watts and Dodds created an influence network with opinion flows in many directions at once, adjusted for the probability that a given individual will adopt a change when the information comes from a certain source.

They then introduced an event into the simulation, evaluating what factors resulted in an overall shift in opinion in their model system. They also introduced “hyper influentials” and monitored their effects, tried grouping individuals together into sub-networks, and adjusted the degree at which attitudes shift.

“Anytime some notable social change is recognized, whether it be a grassroots cultural fad, a successful marketing campaign, or a dramatic drop in crime rates, it is tempting to trace the phenomenon to the individuals who “started it,” and conclude that their actions or behavior “caused” the events that subsequently took place,” the authors write.

However, they explain: “…under most of these conditions influentials are less important than is generally supposed, either as initiators of large cascades, or as early adopters.”

Duncan J. Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodds, “Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation.” Journal of Consumer Research: December 2007.