Adopting an idea

I happened to read this article from the Center for American Progress about the different groups found in polls about global warming. and was immediatley taken with the numbers. Here is the relevant figure I wish to discuss.

figure 1

I’ve read a lot about how new ideas and innovations work their way through a population (here are some handy examples). What struck me was the these percentages are actually almost exactly the numbers one would expect to see for any innovation or idea moving its way through a society. Read the whole report . Seldom does a survey’s report find people falling into similar ‘types’ seen that full scale research efforts also identified.

Look at the numbers – 18%, 33%, 19%, 12%, 11% and 7%. I’ve mentioned several times before the different groups that are found as an innovation or as new idea diffuses through a community. There has been a lot of work that indicates that there are 5 groups present as a community adopts a new idea:

  • innovators
  • early adopters
  • early majority
  • late majority
  • laggards

From the work of Beal, Rogers and Bohlen (and the Wikipedia page), the distribution of each of these types in a population follows a bell curve,

doption of innovations

Now look at the numbers from the global warming survey.They fit pretty well into these categories. Just another item to demonstrate how acceptance of a novel idea or innovation breaks down.

This can also give us hints about how far we are along the process of adoption of the innovation

If one looks at the cumulative adoption of an innovation in a community, it follows an S-shaped curve, as seen in the original paper from Ryan and Gross from the 30s:

diffusion of an innovation

This same sort of curve is seen again and again. It does not matter whether the innovation is a new hybrid corn or a new drug. It appears that this type of adoption is very dependent on human social networks. Each group informs itself based on what the previous group knows (i.e. the group to the left).

For example, the innovators tend to be highly connected with many sources of information from outside a community, acting to bring that information into a group from outside and determine whether the idea the innovators are playing with has any real use. The early adopters act as a bridge from the innovators and the rest of the community, usually adding their own input and serving as opinion leaders on new innovations.

The 68% in the middle are deferential to the opinions of people that they trust. They usually need explicit approval from leaders in their community before adopting a new innovation.So, the early middle adopt a new innovation when the early adopters do while the late majority waits until the early middle does. The laggards serve as a check on the entire group to make sure the community does not get overly excited by the innovators and their shiny new toys.

There is, then, a pretty defined path to adoption of new innovations and ideas in a community. So, where are we with regard to progressing along this curve for climate change? Well, the curve starts with 0% adoption of the innovation and progresses to 100% (or close to it), so we are obviously some place along the curve.

Examination of the curve above shows that once the early adopters and innovators have made the change (that is, when about 16% are onboard), then the rate of adoption increases tremendously, almost going exponential, as the majority in the middle rapidly begin adopting the change.

Well, we now have more than the 16% on board with global warming, so we should expect rapid change. I think that is exactly what we are seeing.

In fact, the early majority is really moving close to where the early adopters/innovators are, with even some of the laggards getting on board. Ten years ago, there was a lot of doubt that climate change was even happening. Now look at the distribution:

figure 2

Almost everyone is above ‘Don’t know” and the various ‘global warming is not happening’ choices. We are making progress. And I suspect we are well along the part of the curve signaling rapid change in people’s views.

The debate is really not going to be if global warming is happening but what to do about it, an entirely new sort of debate. And some of the debating points appear to already have been decided. For instance, carbon dioxide as a pollutant:

figure 19

or increasing fuel efficiency, something Obama just announced:

figure 20

Both of these show significant support throughout the population. In contrast, there are also some ideas that are still in the very early stages with even the early adopters unsure if they should take up the innovation:

figure 22

All in all, a great report illustrating the standard process as new ideas percolate through a population. We are well through the stages of acceptance of global warming and making good progress on what to do about it.

Just remember, once the early adopters/innovatoers have taken a position on a new innovation or idea, then change usually happens quite rapidly. So, identifying who those early opinion makers are and educating them can increase the rate of diffusion of the innovation quite a lot.

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5 thoughts on “Adopting an idea”

  1. Pingback: S-curves
  2. It’s worth checking out the Elaboration-Liklihood model ( – as there is a step between ‘belief’ and ‘action’ which is quite important.

    Politician, marketeers and employers are all quite interested in what is likely to trigger votes, a sale or the right behaviour at work and I think it’s interesting to see in the example above how many of the more concerned segments will actually take action themselves…

    Love the blog

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