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Minority influence occurs when a small group, defined as having a different opinion, changes the opinion of a larger group. As used in this term, minority doesn’t necessarily mean a different gender, ethnicity or religion, but instead refers to individuals or small groups that hold a different opinion. There are certain circumstances where this social psychological phenomenon is most likely and others where it’s possible that this form of influence won’t be successful. When it’s discussed, small examples are often used, as minority influence tends to decrease as the minority or majority increases. There are notable exceptions.
In the classic 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, a character played by Henry Fonda becomes a holdout in a jury that wants to convict a young man of committing a murder. Hours of intense deliberation ensue, with Fonda’s character in the minority position of believing the evidence deserves greater examination. Ultimately, he begins to convince the other members of the jury that his view is correct and that the defendant may be innocent. This is an example of minority influence, where a single person is able to sway a group to a different position.
There are several key elements that appear to make minority influence more successful. The first is holding an unwavering position, as Fonda’s character does in the movie. Additionally, those in the minority must be able to carefully articulate the ways they are like and unlike the majority. They must be unbiased and exude confidence that the position they hold is the correct course. Interestingly, and one of the reasons why this film is often cited as an example of this concept is that Fonda’s character does all this as he gradually exerts minority influence.
Examples of this phenomenon often involve very small groups influencing relatively small majorities. For example, a minority of factory workers might be able to convince a majority of employees to join a union. Usually, it becomes increasingly more difficult to exert minority influence as the numbers of the minority swell. It makes it harder to hold a unified position, remain unswayed by majority pressure, or be biased by other sources.
There are some instances where large minority groups successfully persist and adhere to a point of view that changes majority opinion. The Civil Rights Movement was an example of this, as was the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Sometimes the majority also concedes some element to the minority if it feels it will get consensus on other elements of a plan. For example, there are some political analysts that believe the Blue Dog Democrat minority were successful in removing a public option requirement from health care reform legislation in 2010 because the measure would not pass without their cooperation.
Generally, it’s easier to see minority influence in smaller groups, and in these it occurs with great frequency. Without the elements listed above it tends not to be successful. Arguably, there are other important social elements at play with this form of influence. The ability to hold one strong viewpoint, be flexible in other views, and coolly resist pressure, criticism, or influence all involve a certain level of maturity and good communication skills.