Yellow windsock at the beach (Photo: Dlanor S/Unsplash)

History shows that public opinion shifts over time. Inter-racial marriage was considered taboo just 50 years ago, and today it’s widely accepted, for example. But how do opinions change? Theoretical physicist Max Planck believed that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Some researchers suspect the same may be true for shifts in public opinion. Yet some studies have found that groups of people do sometimes change their minds.

SFI postdoctoral fellows Vicky Yang and Tamara van der Does have formed a working group to try to learn more about how public opinion changes, and how quickly. In a June 10-12 meeting titled “Understanding and Predicting Societal Opinion Change,” the group, which will include experts in molecular biology, sociology, computer science, physics, and mathematics, will explore the forces that shape shifts in public perception — and how to predict future societal changes. The researchers will create a dynamic model that takes into account opinion change, population dynamics, and societal influences and apply it to various issues.

One key question the group will explore, Yang says, is whether there’s a standard time frame for how long it takes public opinion on a subject to shift, and if not, why social change occurs more quickly on some issues than others. The group hopes to produce a paper on their findings.