New research shows that uninformed individuals may be key to the democratic process.
A team of scientists recently discovered that uninformed individuals support the decision of the majority, which can prevent a particularly determined minority from prevailing over the rest of the population.
This means that individuals who are undecided do not necessarily present a risk to the democratic decision-making process, but in fact offer protection against the dominance of a small but strong-willed group.
The team of researchers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, note how history holds many examples of how a handful or even a single determined individual has succeeded in affecting the fate of entire societies.
The commonly held view is that these determined individuals or groups will prevail when faced with large numbers of poorly informed and undecided individuals who tend to follow the decisions of others.
Using a variety of computer models, the researchers demonstrated that uninformed individuals can also bring about a majority decision, even if the minority is more determined than the majority.
“Our simulations initially confirmed what we expected: A small group that resolutely pursues a specific objective can dominate a larger group. What surprised us was that a group of uninformed or undecided individuals can prevent this from happening,” says Thilo Gross, who has moved from the Max Planck Institute in Dresden to the University of Bristol.
The researchers found that the urge to go along with a relatively even-tempered majority frequently prevails over the attraction of an extremely determined minority. For this to happen, however, there must be sufficient undecided individuals to join in with the majority, they said.
The researchers used computer models to simulate a decision-making situation offering two choices, with the ability to vary the number of individuals preferring one option or the other. They also varied the strength of feeling with which individuals preferred either option.
The models were based on a few generalized assumptions. “Our results are therefore applicable to all systems in which individuals would rather follow one another than enter into conflict and make decisions in the interests of their neighbors. This is true of various social organisms such as, for example, shoals of fish, flocks of birds or herds of mammals. And of course our findings are also transferable to human societies,” explains Ian Couzin from Princeton University.
To complement the computer models, the researchers also studied the behavior of fish. By introducing food, they trained two groups of golden shiners, Notemigonus crysoleucas, to swim toward either a yellow or a blue disc. The fish began with a predilection for yellow, so that those trained to swim to the yellow disc acquired a much stronger preference than those trained to swim to the blue disc.
An analysis of their behavior confirmed the results of the computer model: Five fish trained to prefer yellow prevailed over six fish trained to prefer blue.
In a second series of tests, the researchers introduced five or 10 untrained fish, which altered the outcome of the collective decision. Despite their strong predilection, the fish trained to prefer yellow were unable to prevail. The untrained and therefore uninformed fish sided with the majority, and all of them then headed for the blue disc.
When transferred to humans, this means that uninformed and therefore undecided individuals play an important role in collective decisions, the researchers said.
However, the calculations also show that the number of uninformed individuals is critical. If there are too many uninformed individuals, the decisions are no longer predictable and follow a random pattern, the researchers warn.