2011 December 18 Sunday
Ignorant Humans Behave Like Uninformed Fish

Princeton University researchers believe ignorant voters behave like uninformed fish and go along with the decision-making of the majority. (thanks Lou Pagnucco)

Contrary to the ideal of a completely engaged electorate, individuals who have the least interest in a specific outcome can actually be vital to achieving a democratic consensus. These individuals dilute the influence of powerful minority factions who would otherwise dominate everyone else, according to new research published in the journal Science.

A Princeton University-based research team reports Dec. 16 that this finding based on group decision-making experiments on fish, as well as mathematical models and computer simulations can ultimately provide insights into humans' political behavior.

This is not the sort of Panglossian view we hear from TV political commentators on election day about human political behavior in a democracy.

The majority attracts the ignorant.

The researchers report that in animal groups, uninformed individuals as in those with no prior knowledge or strong feelings on a situation's outcome tend to side with and embolden the numerical majority. Relating the results to human political activity, the study challenges the common notion that an outspoken minority can manipulate uncommitted voters.

Outspoken minority views are hopelessly outgunned.

These researchers think the ignorant do not help extreme views to proliferate. The ignorant are too apathetic.

"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 show that when the uninformed participate, the group can come to a majority decision even in the face of a powerful minority," Couzin said. "They prevent deadlock and fragmentation because the strength of an opinion no longer matters it comes down to numbers. You can imagine this being a good or bad thing. Either way, a certain number of uninformed individuals keep that minority from dictating or complicating the behavior of the group."

Wondering what this portends for the future? With too many ignorant people (think Idiocracy) the society ceases to function coherently. Noise dominates.

Of course this effect has its limits, Couzin said. He and his co-authors also found that if the number of uninformed becomes too high, a group ceases to function coherently, with neither the majority nor the minority taking the lead. "Eventually, noise dominates because there just aren't enough informed individuals to guide the group," he said.

I'm thinking we need more political fragmentation with break-away states that will contain the smart people. Then those break-away states can make better policies and also create barriers between their mini-states and the states that have most of the uninformed people.

A cult around a leader's personality or charisma is a sign that the ignorant masses are playing too big a role in the electoral process.

A forceful minority can dominate in circumstances that attract the more politically inclined, such as midterm elections and primaries. In more popular elections, however, that influence wanes as less passionate people participate. Situations in which a candidate's personality or personal life takes precedent over policy positions in voters' minds could be an equivalent to the breakdown in direction Couzin and his co-authors found when there is a glut of uninformed individuals, Saari said.

Update: I have an idea for how to cut the harm from the growing ignorant masses: Make primary voting only available to people with more intellectual resources. For example, only party donors could participate in primaries. Or only people who show up at caucuses. Raise the bar for primary participation.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 December 18 02:50 PM  Human Nature Political Failure

Izhmash said at December 18, 2011 6:23 PM:

I'm thinking we need more political fragmentation with break-away states that will contain the smart people. Then those break-away states can make better policies and also create barriers between their mini-states and the states that have most of the uninformed people."

There is a good chance that outspoken minority views regarding break-away states may be hopelessly outgunned. Literally and well as figuratively. Smart people had better get familiar and comfortable with firearms.

ziel said at December 18, 2011 9:42 PM:

Interesting - might well explain a lot. For example, why does affirmative action usually poll so well? Since it's never really attacked publicly except by people out at the fringe, the average voter will go along with the majority.

Marlin said at December 20, 2011 3:09 AM:

Fascinating. So how far are we from a Cult of Personality leader? We have shades of it now, but not the full deal. 20 years? 10? 5 years? If they can ever manage to legalize the 10 to 15 million Mestizos, it will happen shortly thereafter, most likely.

Ross Noble said at December 24, 2011 9:01 PM:

Our information system was short circuited by Clinton's telecommunication act. Between the breakdown of the credit money system, where Glass-Steagall was replaced with Graham Leach Bliley, and information is centralized, we have a slow moving coup de etat.

In other words, Clinton's immoratily sold us down the river. For awhile it looks good as credit money spews forth from the banks, where said credit is made to look good with insurance backing (AIG and too big to fail socialization which is another form of insurance). The credit mechanism makes housing appear to be an improving asset, and it shows up on the books of national accounting. But, it is false wealth, driven up by floods of money chasing a relatively fixed amount of housing goods. The liabilty and asset side of the bankers ledger drive up simulataneoulsy. When the bubble finally pops, we are left with a balance sheet recession.

So, what does this have to do with ignorant people schooling like fish? You were snookered too with the housing bubble...admit it. It appeared as if housing would go up forever and it was the ticket to wealth. You feel like a dupe now? It is impossible to have perfect knowledge, and we depend on our institutions to work. Money should signal us properly so we can function. The ignorant fish classes should also be fed real information, and not be duped.

Our main information system, the press was consolidated with cross directorates allowed in the telecommunications act. This means that the third estate, the press, no longer functions in its consititutional role. The lemming like behavior of the press is countered only by the internet. The poor and ignorant don't get their information from the internet. They instead sit in front of TV like a zombie and are fed uncontested falsehoods by the corrupted press.

The press was undermined with Credit money that sourced out of our banking system. This same credit money system also undermines our political system, especially via the 17'th ammendment. Senators need your vote, and they need money to buy it.

The simple fix is to revoke Clinton's telecommunication act, and prevent a few well connected people from controlling the press. The other fix is to do away with private credit money. The NEED act, before Congress, would be fairly effective at repairing the Credit money problem that funds virtually all of our disfunction. Yes it is promoted by a liberal (Kucinich), but that doesn't mean the act is wrong.

Randall Parker said at December 26, 2011 11:42 AM:


We really need a place to migrate to.

ASPIRANT said at January 4, 2012 11:42 AM:

you have to keep in mind that "ignorant" also includes those who are smart enough to care, but just don't because taking a reasonable position would endanger their social status.

in this country, we put so much emphasis on political group-identification. my brother in law is a born-and-bred democrat, who in unprompted conversation gets very close to the edge of right-wing politics (like refusing welfare to baby-machines). but whenever the issue comes up formally, he's in the trenches with biden and obama.

my hypothesis is that there are a lot of people like him, who follow their parties because they believe that showing even minor support for any policies the group considers "too right/left-wing" will cause them to lose status.

as for me, i have managed to turn my contrarian views into a status symbol in itself. it's so funny when people call me a "libertarian" and i correct them, i'm a "scientific realist," a term of my own coining. kind of strange how that works.

i will absolutely never discuss racial politics with them. if i get branded as a racist, i stand to lose even years-old friends.

to conclude a rambling post, it's much safer to follow a group. you don't do it because you're dumb, but because you fear the consequences of offending the group's ethos. and this is true of both democrats and republicans.

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