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September 12, 2011

Game Theory, True Believers, and a Damning Similarity

Recipe for disaster: take 10% true believers, add a reasonable majority willing to negotiate, and ensure that the true believers never deviate while you stir, stir, stir....

Fascinating article in the Atlantic, From Sushi to Tunisia: A Guide to Swaying Majority Opinion, in which the research suggests that what a distinct minority needs to change the position of the majority is:
  • an intractable minority of True Believers
  • a flexible, reasonable majority
  • a tipping point when about 10% of the population advocates the minority opinion

 My favorite reading on True Believers is by longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, and he makes the point that true believers in all movements share the same attributes of poor self-esteem and the desire to subsume their individuality into a group that demands total adherence. Hoffer says that when a True Believer becomes estranged from their original movement, they can easily and rapidly become converts to the opposite movement if it provides the same psychological support.

The Atlantic article goes on to suggest a few points:
  • Minorities can prevail only if they strive to become less of a minority, by turning a small fraction of the population into steadfast supporters of their cause.
  • The minority should convince new people to join them before worrying about convincing the whole world. Once they reach 10% the dynamics will do the rest
  • the study demonstrates the validity of an old saying, that in a negotiation process the less reasonable will eventually prevail

An facile thought is that Iraqi nation-forming and/or the Arab Spring provides an opportunity to test the notion. The militant imams will present an intractable minority, the majority are disposed to listen and negotiate, and we'll have to see if it works out as the research suggests.

I'd like to suggest that there's another scenario that provides an opportunity to see if the hypothesis is useful for description or prediction: the Democratic-President vs Republic House imbroglio.

In their own way, the Tea Party, the Starve The Beast folks, and the people that see austerity as a response to economic depression are every bit of the intractable, fundamentalist minority.


If the research holds valid in our domestic situation, it's going to be an ugly decade. It may be that Obama's only winning strategy would be to change the definition of the game by extending the problem space from the two-player Democratic President vs Republican House to a three-player space, Executive-Legislative-Judiciary.


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