In Defense of Village Idiots

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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.

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