Thursday, January 05, 2012

Can ignorance promote democracy?

It is easy to despair over the continuing decay in the intelligence and rationality of American voters, and worry about their susceptibility to manipulation by loud voices offering simplistic solutions. Past work has suggested that when many individuals (human voters, flocks of birds, schools of fish) must come together to make a single collective decision, a strongly opinionated minority (tea party anyone?), might be able to exert disproportional pressure on the decision-making process. Couzin et al. develop a theoretical model in which uninformed individuals inhibit the influence of a strongly opinionated minority, returning control to the numerical majority, and in experiments on the shiner, a schooling fish, show the utility of their model. In the presence of an intransigent (and not proselytizing) minority uninformed individuals tend to adopt the opinions of those around them, amplifying the majority opinion and preventing erosion by the intransigent minority. Thus, adding uninformed individuals to a group can facilitate fair representation during the process of information integration. Here is the abstract:
Conflicting interests among group members are common when making collective decisions, yet failure to achieve consensus can be costly. Under these circumstances individuals may be susceptible to manipulation by a strongly opinionated, or extremist, minority. It has previously been argued, for humans and animals, that social groups containing individuals who are uninformed, or exhibit weak preferences, are particularly vulnerable to such manipulative agents. Here, we use theory and experiment to demonstrate that, for a wide range of conditions, a strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice, but the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously inhibits this process, returning control to the numerical majority. Our results emphasize the role of uninformed individuals in achieving democratic consensus amid internal group conflict and informational constraints.

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