Add to My MSN

In Defense of Village Idiots

12/22/2011 10:51:16 AM

Tags: democratic process, groupthink, crowd behavior, fish, politics, Miller-McCune, Will Wlizlo


Although it pains me to even type these words, new research from Princeton University suggests that the least informed citizens provide a crucial damper on our democratic process. Ecology professor Iain Couzin used a model animal that, on the whole, is more intelligent that about 30 percent of Americans: fish.

The experiment involved golden shiner fish, which innately are drawn to the color yellow (as many humans are drawn to the ice cream freezer at the grocery store or to cable news channels on the television). Couzin and his fellow researchers trained a number of them to swim against their nature prefer the color blue instead. “In experiments where a minority of fish was trained to swim toward a yellow target,” reports Miller-McCune, “and a majority toward a blue target, the minority swayed the whole group more than 80 percent of the time.” Think of these as the “informed” actors in a democracy who have a very specific, possibly extreme, goal for the country.

When the research team introduced “uninformed” fish—those that hadn’t been turned-on to blue—the crowd did something surprising. “Adding those individuals dramatically changes the outcome of group decision-making,” Couzin told Miller-McCune. “They inhibit the minority and support the majority view, and this allows the majority to be heard and that view to dominate.” The views of the Ron Pauls and Dennis Kuchiniches of the fish world get drowned out for something a little more moderate—and in line with the wants of the majority.

“But these are fish!” you say. That’s true, and Couzin concedes as much. But, the researchers point out, as a citizen crowd, we have much in common with Couzin’s model. Humans, Miller-McCune points out, have “the ability to influence and be influenced by each other. We also have the capacity for strong opinion.”

The implication of this study could be very transformative about how we behave in large groups. If Couzin’s experiment shows similar results on human subjects, it will have the “potential to knock down a bit of conventional wisdom about how people make group decisions — that is, that uninformed people are easily swayed by the loudest voice in the room, enabling extreme minority views to spread.”

Source: Miller-McCune 

Image by Benson Kua, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


bobbie smith
1/2/2012 5:45:32 PM
There is one man (lobbyist), Grover Norquist and his 60-word pledge that has created the congressional gridlock. We must educated and get this pledge out! or Let's get to it!!!

bobbie smith
1/2/2012 5:44:01 PM

Kathleen Murphy
12/28/2011 5:43:58 PM
Doesn't this just mean that the blue-swimming majority were reminded of their "innate" behaviour by the yellow-swimming minority?

Sally Adler
12/27/2011 4:27:15 PM
I'd be a lot more likely to resubscribe to Utne if I could depend on you researching your sources and giving credit where credit is due: Couzins et al. - Science 16 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1578-1580 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210280. Followed by the human model: West and Bergstrom - Science 16 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1503-1504 DOI: 10.1126/science.1216124. Miller-McCune gets the credit because it's 'alternative' and Science is not?

Pay Now Save $5!

Print and DigitalWant to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here