Democracy needs ignorant people, says science

Posted on December 18, 2011


You might think that democracies work best when people care and know about the key issues. But a new study argues that for a democracy to function at all, you need lots of ignorant people blindly siding with the majority.

That’s the argument put forward by Princeton researcher Iain Couzin and his team, who make the argument that a fully informed electorate would collapse into an unworkable hodgepodge of minority factions or risk being dominated by a single forceful minority group. But if most voters don’t really think about the issues, they will just tend to side with whoever is popular, allowing majority rule to continue and democracy to keep functioning. Yeah, you might want to check your last shreds of political idealism at the door for this one.

Couzin and his team argue for what we might call a sweet spot of ignorance. There needs to be just enough people who know anything about the issues to act as leaders for everyone else, but the majority disintegrates if there are too many viewpoints pulling in different directions. And while that seems to pretty aptly describe the last decade (at least) of American political discourse, I’d feel better if I knew just how the researchers arrived at their conclusions.

Why, by studying the behavior of fish, of course. Specifically, they looked at golden shiners, a species that is naturally attracted to the color yellow. The researchers took a bunch of these fish and trained most of them to act against instinct and swim towards a blue target, while the rest were trained to follow their natural preference and go for a yellow target.

When the researchers placed just these two groups together, the smaller group of yellow-seeking fish was able to dominate the blue-seeking fish, making them all swim to the yellow target 80% of the time.


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