The 3.5% Rule: The Passionate Few Change the World

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Skin in the Game" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the 3.5% rule? Does it really take only 3.5% of the population to challenge the status quo?

According to Nassim Taleb, the author of Skin in the Game, the state of the world is largely the result of small groups passionately fighting for what they want rather than a majority’s consensus. Indeed, history shows us that in order for your passionate few to succeed, you only need 3.5% of the population on your side.

In this article, we’ll explore how the concept applies to politics, religion, language, and morality. We’ll conclude by explaining how you yourself can be part of a passionate few.

The 3.5% Rule

The 3.5% rule demonstrates that most of us vastly overestimate what it takes to change the way things are done. In a study of hundreds of political movements from the last century, from the Philippines’ 1986 People Power campaign to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, one researcher has found that events in which 3.5% of the population actively participates have never failed, at least in recent history. Additionally, nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their aims than violent ones—all you need to do to make a change is get the people on your side.

Who Are the Passionate Few?

Taleb asserts that civilization is disproportionately impacted by the preferences of strong-willed minorities. These passionate few forcibly put as much skin in the game as possible, making more sacrifices than anyone else is willing to make in order to get what they want.

The passionate few have the capacity to drastically shape society because unless the majority is strongly opposed to the preferences of the minority, the indifferent whole will let the minority have their way.

A simple example: A teenager is obsessed with sci-fi blockbusters. None of the other members of her family are particularly interested in sci-fi, but they often agree to watch them with her simply because they aren’t strongly opposed to the genre. If there’s no reason to deny the preferences of a passionate minority, the majority will appear to adopt these preferences.

In this way, the passionate few are a perfect example of one of Taleb’s main arguments we discussed in the first section of this guide: Complex systems often behave in ways that contradict surface-level impressions.

To a distant observer, the passionate few’s preferences falsely appear to belong to the entire group. In the example above, the entire family bought movie tickets even though most of them didn’t really want to see the movie. A statistical illusion like this could lead analysts to false conclusions—for example, the movie studio could falsely conclude that the lead actor in this sci-fi movie is what made it such a box-office success. This is why Taleb identifies as a “localist,” arguing that decisions should be made by people who are directly involved (i.e. with skin in the game).

Malcolm Gladwell’s Law of The Few

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the power the passionate few have in starting a movement. Gladwell attributes the idea-spreading potential of the passionate few to specific personality traits, categorizing them into three types.“Connectors” have a far larger social circle than average, and are particularly adept at spreading ideas to groups that normally wouldn’t hear about them. To return to our example of the breakout sci-fi movie, connectors would be social butterflies who can’t stop talking about the movie to everyone they run into. “Mavens” are reliable experts whose opinions people are far more likely to respect. A beloved critic who praises the sci-fi movie online would be a Maven. Finally, “Salesmen” are best at convincing people to accept their ideas. They’re charismatic speakers that make people want to share their feelings and opinions—the irresistibly excitable teen who convinced her family to go see the movie in our earlier example is a good Salesman.

Gladwell credits these “passionate” types of people with spreading successful movements, but Taleb expands his idea of the passionate few to include those who are unconsciously “passionate”—who simply have inflexible preferences. It’s possible that Gladwell is overemphasizing the personality traits we can see, and underemphasizing the simple fact that all these people have strong opinions.

The Passionate Few in Religion

Taleb uses the idea of the passionate few to explain why historically some religions spread and others died out.

He credits the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East to specific religious rules: first, anyone who married a Muslim had to convert to Islam, along with any future children. Second, converting to Islam was permanent, and renunciation of Islam was blasphemy. Across many generations, these uncompromising rules overpowered many religions with more lax requirements. Gnostic religions that allowed one spouse to keep their own religion soon nearly vanished entirely—their “indifferent” preferences were overridden.

The passionate few can also help us understand the internal structure of today’s religions. Taleb states that, over time, intolerant sects within religions end up overpowering and absorbing the tolerant ones, resulting in religions with strict rules that renounce unbelievers. For example, Taleb asserts that Sunni Islam is being taken over by its strictest, most intolerant sect: the Salafis.

(Shortform note: The principle of the passionate few can also explain why a unique kind of religion—the “local” kind—has died out. In his book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari describes the now-extinct religion of animism, followed by most hunter-gatherer tribes. These tribes believed that every animal and object had a soul, and each tribe accrued their own supernatural beliefs and laws based on their experiences with the nature around them. Animists believed that their supernatural truths only applied to them, so they were quickly overpowered when religions based on universal beliefs hit the scene.)

The Passionate Few in Politics

This principle is key to understanding political science. Indifferent voters can be swayed by a number of factors unrelated to what they’re actually voting on, such as party allegiance, or a strong dislike for other candidates. All it takes is a passionate few to convince them.

(Shortform note: Just as in religions, the effect of the passionate few often causes political groups to swing toward extremism. We can see this in today’s politically polarized climate. In the United States, however, we may be seeing a return to moderate compromise. Joe Biden, a relatively moderate candidate, ended up winning the 2020 presidency. This Foreign Policy article suggests that moderates on either side of the political divide are compromising as extreme factions become less and less agreeable—the extreme passionate few are straying too far from the majorities’ modest preferences.)

The Passionate Few in Language

The passionate few have a counterintuitive effect on the way languages spread. Throughout history, languages spoken by a powerless but “passionate” minority have become the dominant language of a given population. More often than not, this “passion” was simply the result of a lower class’s inability to learn another language. Their preferences were inflexible by nature.

Ironically, this sometimes resulted in conquering nations adopting the language of the people they subjugated. Taleb explains that when the Persians conquered Babylon, the infrastructure of the nation was being run by workers who only spoke Aramaic, so the conquerors were forced to adopt the language.

(Shortform note: Today, there is a different kind of passionate few working to preserve minority languages. Some academics and activists see the preservation of languages as a societal responsibility. Languages like Cherokee and Navajo are drifting toward extinction and will likely disappear unless someone intervenes. Activists argue that languages need to be preserved because they contain a rich cultural history, carry specific knowledge about the world, and even let us think in new ways.)

The Passionate Few in Morality

Culturally embedded moral codes are more likely credited to a passionate few than the consensus of the majority.

Widely accepted ethical rules are typically stricter than the average person would agree with. Most people would agree that some degree of rule-bending in regards to right and wrong is okay. An office worker may believe it’s alright to tell a white lie to spare a coworker’s feelings, while a criminal may find it morally acceptable to rob a bank. In almost every case, cultural ideas of the “right thing to do” are more extreme than an individual’s idea of the “right thing to do,” if only by a slight margin.

This is because those with strong moral convictions are more stubborn than those without them. People with strict personal morals will never intentionally permit themselves to do wrong, but people without strict personal morals can go either way. The latter group isn’t strongly against moral behavior, but the former group is strongly against immoral behavior. This less strict group is morally indifferent—and as we know, the indifferent majority accepts the preferences of the passionate few.

Should We Tolerate Intolerance?

Taleb highlights a specific moral quandary that can be solved using the theory of the passionate few, which he calls “Popper-Goedel’s Paradox.” Should a society that ensures equal rights permit people to use their rights to infringe on the rights of others? Should we protect the freedom of speech of those advocating for the oppression of a certain group? In other words: Should we tolerate intolerance?

In view of the passionate few, Taleb argues “no.” An intolerant passionate few that pushes hard enough will get their way if the rest of the population remains indifferent. Despite the danger of hypocrisy, fighting back against intolerance is the only way to ensure that our liberties are preserved.

You Can Be Part of a Passionate Few

The fact that a passionate few can have such a meaningful impact on the world should inspire us. You can be part of a passionate few yourself! History shows that no matter what change you want to make in the world, if you’re persistent enough, people less committed than you will bend to your passion.

However, it takes skin in the game to be part of a passionate few. You must be prepared to take risks and make sacrifices for your cause. 

Fortunately, though, extra skin in the game for a good cause is the key to a fulfilling life. As we discussed in Chapter 1 of this guide, the potential for massive impact is one of the benefits reserved for artists who put more than skin in the game.

The 3.5% Rule: The Passionate Few Change the World

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  • Why having a vested interest is the single most important contributor to human progress
  • How some institutions and industries were completely ruined by not being invested
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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