Uninformed People are Good for Democracy

Posted by Lindsay Starke on Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 3:37PM

How are democratic decisions really made? Both sides will battle it out over their contrasting opinions, but what about the large, uninformed contingent of people who don't feel strongly one way or another? Past research has implied that these people are likely to be convinced, even manipulated, by a loud minority, but a new study shows that under certain conditions, the uninformed actually swing the vote toward the majority decision.

Through initial modeling and then experimentation using schools of fish, researchers from Princeton University showed that, even with an extremely loud minority, having ignorant or untrained individuals in the group tended to put control in the hands of the majority. The more uninformed individuals, the greater the effect seemed to be, up until the uninformed dominate the group and democratic function ceases.

"The classic view is that uninformed or uncommitted individuals may allow extreme views to proliferate. We found that might not be the case," said lead author Iain Couzin, a Princeton assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He and his co-authors found that even a small population of indifferent individuals act as a counterbalance to the minority -- whose passion even can cause informed individuals in the majority to waver -- and restore majority rule.

We tend to think of ignorance as a bad thing, especially during an election cycle, but it appears that the uninformed play an important role in societies as well. Readily adapting to the majority could have been a very useful trait to our ancestors, avoiding conflict and encouraging coherence within the group. Perhaps, in a way, ignorance might be a survival trait.

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