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Social tipping points

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  • 1. What is the 25% based on?

    Various social experiments show that when about a quarter of a group adopt a different norm, the rest of the group will follow suit. However, the percentage cannot be precisely defined. The key point is that a certain number of people are needed to reach a tipping point. In technical terms, this is also referred to as the ‘critical mass.’ The critical mass can vary according to the situation. For example, overthrowing an undemocratic government can be achieved when 3.5% of the population takes to the streets and protests.

    All studies on social tipping points have two things in common. Firstly: contrary to what you might intuitively think, the critical mass is always significantly less than 50% of the people. Secondly, reaching the tipping point isn’t a linear process: there can be a long period of simmering and bubbling under the surface, and then suddenly the tipping point is reached.

  • 2. Are we nearing the tipping point?

    We are probably close to the tipping point. This is evident because more and more people say they want to be sustainable but have not yet adopted sustainable practices. This might seem hypocritical, but it is actually because they are not yet able to do so effectively. Our society is not yet structured for it. There are still various obstacles. Sustainable options are often expensive or they may not even exist yet, like rapid international trains.

    This means that we have reached a point where governments and companies need to start contributing. If they start listening better to what people say they want and take it seriously, they can create policies and products accordingly. This removes obstacles and makes sustainable behavior not just possible, but the norm.

    However, it’s by no means guaranteed that the tipping point will actually be reached. It might not happen because people still find it uncomfortable to deviate from the norm and speak out. So: we still absolutely need those brave pioneers and followers. They make the support visible to governments and companies.

  • 3. What are other underlying factors of social tipping points?

    An important ‘engine’ behind social tipping points is that at some point, it becomes socially uncomfortable to not adhere to the new norm. Think of feeling ashamed of traveling via airplane and eating meat. Those examples show us that the norm really is already shifting.

    Also interesting is that people often underestimate how many others are in favor of taking climate measures. This underestimation leads people to mistakenly think they are alone, which prevents them from speaking out or taking action. And as a result, companies and governments also underestimate the support base.

    So: speak out, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable.

  • 4. Why do I feel uncomfortable when talking about my sustainable behavior?

    No one wants to be a moral rebel. We find those kinds of people annoying because they make us feel like our way of living isn’t the right way. This causes us to shut down and no longer be receptive to what they have to say. It also sometimes feels hypocritical to talk about our own sustainable thoughts and behaviors because we’re not doing it perfectly yet.

    These two barriers mean that there is still far too little discussion about our own sustainable beliefs and actions. But that’s precisely what’s needed to reach the social tipping point. Talking about it is contagious. It encourages others to do the same and reveals the support base to governments and companies. So: be brave and break the silence. Tips for this are provided in the next question.

  • 5. How can I tell others about my sustainable behavior without being a moral rebel?

    Luckily, there are ways to discuss this without making it awkward. Here are 6 tips:

    • Listen. Let the other person (or people) speak.
    • Ask questions. And listen carefully to the answer. Repeat what the other person said to check if you understood correctly.
    • Ask if you can share something about your sustainable thoughts and actions. If so, possibly connect to common interests and values. Then ask how the other person feels about it.
    • Do not judge the other person. Assume they have good intentions, even if adopting sustainable behavior is hard for them. Show empathy.
    • Encourage small steps. Let them know that progress is possible. For example, talk about how you started your sustainable journey.
    • Give compliments for successes, no matter how small.

    Good luck and have fun with it!

  • 6. Are there historical examples of social tipping points?

    Absolutely. Well-known examples include the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, fair trade, seat belts, smoke-free areas, and the (almost completely) abolished Black Pete.

    Our intuition tells us that governments and large companies set the course, but it is the pioneers who set trends and create support bases. These societal changes all started with a small group of pioneers. Initially, they were dismissed as eccentrics. But by remaining consistent and persistent, more and more people became convinced. Now we can’t imagine it any other way.

  • 7. How will you proceed with your research now?

    We already know a lot about behavioral change and social tipping points. Now the question is how we can apply it in practice. How do we change our perception of what we consider normal? Marketing plays an important role in this.

    That’s why I’m also involved in a new circular sneaker brand: Nooch. It’s a Dutch start-up that aims to do for the footwear sector what Tony Chocolonely did for the chocolate industry. How do you market such a sneaker? I enjoy thinking along about that. I think, for example, of funny conversation starters. By having salespeople wear wooden clogs, it creates a surprising interaction, often prompting the customer to start the conversation themselves. Then the salesperson can easily explain that the clogs and the new sneakers have something in common: they are both completely biodegradable!

Continue to watch and read


  • How to start a movement: First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy >> LINK
  • Lecture: Can you save the world on your own? (NL) >> LINK
  • The inaugural lecture by Jan Willem Bolderdijk: Words speak louder than actions >> LINK
  • Jan Willem Bolderdijk at Pakhuis de Zwijger: Glad ijs #1: Tipping points (NL) >> LINK


  • Interview in Trouw: Why we need dissenters for a green future (create a free account to read) (NL) >> LINK
  • Interview with Jan Willem Bolderdijk: Just because people aren’t dancing doesn’t mean they don’t want to party (NL) >> LINK

The UvA profile of Jan Willem Bolderdijk and his scientific publications >> LINK

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