Secondary organic aerosol (SOA) accounts for a dominant fraction of the submicron atmospheric particle mass, but knowledge of the formation, composition and climate effects of SOA is incomplete and limits our understanding of overall aerosol effects in the atmosphere. Organic oligomers were discovered as dominant components in SOA over a decade ago in laboratory experiments and have since been proposed to play a dominant role in many aerosol processes. However, it remains unclear whether oligomers are relevant under ambient atmospheric conditions because they are often not clearly observed in field samples. Here we resolve this long-standing discrepancy by showing that elevated SOA mass is one of the key drivers of oligomer formation in the ambient atmosphere and laboratory experiments. We show for the first time that a specific organic compound class in aerosols, oligomers, is strongly correlated with cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) activities of SOA particles. These findings might have important implications for future climate scenarios where increased temperatures cause higher biogenic volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, which in turn lead to higher SOA mass formation and significant changes in SOA composition. Such processes would need to be considered in climate models for a realistic representation of future aerosol-climate-biosphere feedbacks.