Mapping Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovations to Empathetic Development

pantanal giant otter

An Ariranha, a giant river otter, Pantanal, Brazil, 2006

One of my favorite social theories is Everett Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovations.  Splitting up categories of innovation adopters along a Gaussian curve, it breaks out individuals into five categories — Innovators/Pioneers, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards.  Wikipedia’s post on the theory is a great place to start, for those unfamiliar.  Most of the information discussed below comes from that page.  Rogers wrote his book on the theory and was published in 1962.  The theory itself is extremely innovative, integrating 508 studies from areas as diverse as anthropology, rural sociology, education and medical sociology.  And it has been used across multiple disciplines as well, including organizational studies and complexity management.

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Rogers Everett – Based on Rogers, E. (1962) Diffusion of innovations. Free Press, London, NY, USA.

Rogers’ posited a five step process for adoption of an innovation.  Once again, direct from the Wikipedia post, these are:

  1. Knowledge — The individual is first exposed to an innovation, but lacks information about the innovation. During this stage the individual has not yet been inspired to find out more information about the innovation.
  2. Persuasion — The individual is interested in the innovation and actively seeks related information/details.
  3. Decision — The individual takes the concept of the change and weighs the advantages/disadvantages of using the innovation and decides whether to adopt or reject the innovation. Due to the individualistic nature of this stage, Rogers notes that it is the most difficult stage on which to acquire empirical evidence.
  4. Implementation — The individual employs the innovation to a varying degree depending on the situation. During this stage the individual also determines the usefulness of the innovation and may search for further information about it.
  5. Confirmation — The individual finalizes his/her decision to continue using the innovation. This stage is both intrapersonal (may cause cognitive dissonance) and interpersonal, confirmation the group has made the right decision.

Rogers’ work is seminal, and has stood the test of time.  Originally published in 1962, it has been re-published and updated as recently as 2003, and is still in heavy use today.  However, it is not without its Legalistic/Absolutistic problems.  Some of it, such as the concept of individual choice in adoption, has been looked at empirically, with little agreement.  Individuals choose to adopt for a variety of reasons, none consistent on the topical level.  Those followers of this blog should not be surprised.  The surface level lens almost always fails in broad studies, because many people may state the same reason for a given tech. adoption, but may be motivated for underlying causes that are not captured in a surface level analysis.

So you know what that means — let’s apply our Theory of Empathetic Evolution to the various actors in Rogers Theory and see if that helps!  What comes out is a portrait of social organizations and their dynamics for innovation.  Quelle surprise!


Pioneers in any technology have to have, at some level, a core level of egocentricism in order to buck the tide.  Personal fascination, status-seeking and such are all part of someone’s v-Meme make-up when they buy the first electric car on the block, or whatever electronic gadget is newly extant.  There often isn’t any real data on a given product, though there is hype that can be generated in pioneering communities.

What does that mean from a perspective of empathetic evolution?  There’s gotta be some limbic/impulsive core to the Pioneer.  But interestingly enough, there’s likely a fair amount of diverse empathetic development.  Pioneering communities increasingly spring up on the web, where gender and ethnic/racial profiles don’t matter.  It’s fragmented information that’s feeding the beast.  Plus, what’s really interesting is that metacognition and experimentation have to be core values.  People in pioneering communities have to be comfortable with knowing what they don’t know, as well as being aware there are going to be unknown unknowns out there.  Pioneers also, by definition, are not going to be playing Follow the Leader.  So that also gives credence to the notion of some extended empathetic development.  Relationships have to be based on cross-connection around a product or goal.  I’m going to guess that there’s some pretty strong Authoritarian/Performance-based coupling going on. Not much Legalism, though — a Pioneer is likely to be a rule-breaker.

Early Adopters

Early adopters are people with developed metacognitive abilities — knowing what they don’t know — and are likely more data driven than the Pioneers.  They’re the ones scanning the various trade publications and magazines like Wired, looking for what’s new and what the beta is.  I’m going to guess that this involves a lot more data-driven thinking, and places Early Adopters in the Performance-based Communitarian v-Memes.  Empathetic development also means sharing across networks, and duplex information exchange, as choices are likely being made between performance profiles.  There’s also likely to be some mirroring behavior, and I’ll bet that Early Adopters, while being opinion leaders themselves as Rogers noted, are also heavily influenced by more specialized thought leaders.  That means seeking out more data-driven relationships and respect, once again, as often the Pioneers/Innovators are not going to necessarily be famous.

Early Majority

All the things about Early Adopters, but likely with a more Communitarian v-Meme bent.  Early Majority thinkers are less likely to be as comfortable with metacognitive guessing, and while being aware of their position and the need for change, are less likely to take risks.  I’m guessing that Early Majority are likely a little less data-driven (though that plays an important role) and a little more hierarchical in their thinking.  When someone important who’s a thought leader stands up and says it’s time to change, they jump.

Late Majority

Late Majority participants are definitely less comfortable with metacognitive stretch. They’re the ones likely to dismiss any change as a fad.  By the time the Late Majority gets involved, data has now started getting aggregated into belief.  The information on change is everywhere, and likely requires little empathetic exchange to come to a decision.  As such, Late Majority organizations are likely responding to Legalistic/Absolutistic change (such as new regulations), consist of hierarchies and power structures, and are sliding down the empathetic scale.


Laggards are everything the Late Majority is, but in spades — belief-based thinkers, who are surprised by performance demands and changes in the regulatory environment.  Change happens to them — it is not something they welcome.  New regulatory environments are something they fight — not look as a method for driving product change and performance.  The millennial change fight over Combined Average Fuel Economy standards are a great example. How did that, in the end, help the U.S. auto industry?

As stated in the Wikipedia article, Laggards also have an aversion to change agents — something that really smacks of Authoritarian thinking, and the metacognitive shrink wrapping that happens in these types of organizations.  Not knowing is a downer to personal status, and that means two things:  a collapse of knowledge to organizational borders, as well as a connected collapse in awareness.  If you need an example of this, one need look no further than the contemporary university.  When one considers the fact that the dominant social structure in universities today is rampant authoritarianism, with a collapse in shared governance, it’s no wonder universities fall further and further behind the needs of contemporary society.  A triple whammy of a non-empathetic social structure, coupled with a lack of more profound societal grounding (aka the Ivory Tower effect) and declining budgets (decreased energetics) does not bode well.

It’s worth the time to read through the Wikipedia/Rogers definitions written below and see how they support the v-Meme analysis above.

  1. Innovators – Innovators are willing to take risks, have the highest social status, have financial liquidity, are social and have closest contact to scientific sources and interaction with other innovators. Their risk tolerance allows them to adopt technologies that may ultimately fail. Financial resources help absorb these failures.
  2. Early Adopters – These individuals have the highest degree of opinion leadership among the adopter categories. Early adopters have a higher social status, financial liquidity, advanced education and are more socially forward than late adopters. They are more discreet in adoption choices than innovators. They use judicious choice of adoption to help them maintain a central communication position.
  3. Early Majority – They adopt an innovation after a varying degree of time that is significantly longer than the innovators and early adopters. Early Majority have above average social status, contact with early adopters and seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in a system (Rogers 1962, p. 283)
  4. Late Majority – They adopt an innovation after the average participant. These individuals approach an innovation with a high degree of skepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation. Late Majority are typically skeptical about an innovation, have below average social status, little financial liquidity, in contact with others in late majority and early majority and little opinion leadership.
  5. Laggards – They are the last to adopt an innovation. Unlike some of the previous categories, individuals in this category show little to no opinion leadership. These individuals typically have an aversion to change-agents. Laggards typically tend to be focused on “traditions”, lowest social status, lowest financial liquidity, oldest among adopters, and in contact with only family and close friends.

What’s the takeaway from all this?  The first is that if you want an environment for innovation, you have to have an environment where Innovators and Early Adopters are comfortable and feel safe.  That means fewer titles, less status-based thinking, and an empathetic corporate/institutional culture. Books like more traditional texts like Arthur’s The Nature of Technology — What It Is and How It Evolves support this same premise at a more superficial level as well, with theories that new tech primarily comes out of combinations of old tech.  If that’s true, then the more diverse ideas one has on the table, the more potential combinations.  And then popping down to the deeper level of the Theory of Empathetic Connection, how people connect and what their social structure is Innovation Diffusion destiny.  The more populated your social structure is with Pioneers and Early Adopters, the more likely they can connect and create the innovations your institution needs to survive.

There’s one more thought to ponder in all of this — what kinds of communities do empathy really matter in?  Rogers’ Theory gives insights as well to the formation of titles and belief-based structures.  If things aren’t changing, we can add more and more verbiage to people’s salutations.  It’s a marker of where a company banks its innovation profile when they have a Director of XXX Innovation — and not a good one.

Takeaway:  Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovation dovetails perfectly with what we’ve been writing about on this blog as far as creating innovation environments.  The addition from our Theory of Empathetic Evolution is the need to emphasize empathy and duplex communications if you want to stay on the Early Adopter part of the curve.  The other big takeaway is to not attack your change agents.  They’re the ones scouting what’s coming next.  And in a world where ‘Next’ is always coming, you need them if you don’t want to end up in the Survival v-Meme.



2 thoughts on “Mapping Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovations to Empathetic Development

  1. In response to the Wikipedia/Rogers definitions at the end of the post: while you are moving past the shortcomings I will point out now, I thought it would be worth pointing out that the innovation Rodgers is focusing on, must be, be the very nature/descriptions of the 5 labels, a rather limited type of innovation. The deepest innovations do not correlate with economics and social status, even though the narrow definition of innovation as something technological that gets adapted by everybody does have a stronger connection to status and wealth.

    Openness and the ability to see and hear and imagine with clarity (some call this enlightenment) is certainly not a function of status and wealth. In fact I would argue there is often an anti-correlation. And wider impact, though often delayed (even across several generations) and therefore very hard to track, is also not due to status or wealth of the innovator. No matter whether you call it love or empathy or spiritual vision, and a willingness to follow where it leads is, I am convinced, the true signal to track, the true marker of the presence of innovation potential.

    That is, of course, what you are talking about. Leo Buscaglia’s book “Love” is well known but effectively ignored.
    As a kid, I listened to someone give a long series of evening lectures (actually I listened to recordings after the fact) on education. The central tenant was that Love was the basis for effective education, that an enormous amount of what passed for education now was narrow minded robbery, and that the actual path open to all humans required a deep independence, a boldness that had precedents in history in what would now be considered obscure bits and pieces.

    Anyway,I think that innovation should be looked at much more broadly than what gets turned into billions of dollars by someone. I suspect you agree with this.


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