Photo Credit: Jean Wimmerlin

Jens Krause studies the flocking behavior of animals such as birds and sheep.

By observing schools of fish, Krause, with his collaborator Ashley Ward, developed a theory involving what they call quorum responses. In small groups, a single leader could dictate the direction of the group, but as more fish were added, more leaders were required to determine the direction for the group.

In 2008, he published a paper suggesting an additional set of animals—humans— followed a set of behaviors similar to those of the others he studied. At the prompting of a German TV station, Krause ran an experiment to see if humans displayed similar behavior.

The study put two hundred volunteers in a convention center and gave them three rules:

  1. Don’t talk to anyone
  2. Walk slowly
  3. Stay within arm’s reach of one person in the group.

With that, the group was told to wander freely within the constraints of the given rules. In every test they ran, the group formed two concentric circles.

Krause ran a second experiment with a slight alteration. Keeping the same three basic rules, the researcher pulled aside five people and asked them to walk toward a target on the far side of the room.

The small group, which made up 2.5 percent of the overall, arrived at the target with the rest of the volunteers in their signature concentric circles. Krause added five more people to the target seeking group, raising the overall amount to five percent. With that small change, the entire group of two hundred arrived at the target.

What’s amazing is the power of a small group to influence a large group even when the minority is acting individually and without knowledge of one another. Krause says that when information is scarce, a small group of people can become “disproportionately influential” until the information has spread. Our participation in many social networks decreases the likelihood of complete obedience to the desires of any single group, but Krause’s research shows how we might create information cascades for our startups, situations where people observe others and make the same choice as the group, independently of their own personal knowledge.

Thresholds clearly exist for when a few can influence the many.

Author’s Note: Please read Nick Bilton’s great book I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. His Chapter 4, “Suggestions and Swarms,” talks more about Jens Krause’s research.

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