Ignorance has its place in democracy, researchers say

Dec 15, 2011

Some say ignorance is bliss.  Others say ignorance is a drain on society.  But as contrary as it might sound, researchers have found there may actually be a place for the uninformed in group decision-making.

When it comes to reaching consensus, there seems to be a lot we don’t understand. Take fashion, for example. Why do skinny jeans beat out flared jeans one season but not the next? It’s often assumed the most vocal or opinionated people, whether fashion models or politicians, can sway the masses, even if they are in the minority.

New research shows in some cases ignorance acts as a check on a strong-willed minority. Carl Bergstrom is a biologist at the University of Washington. He wrote a commentary on the research in the most recent edition of Science.  In it, he agrees that uninformed individuals tend to adopt the majority opinion.

“And that was sort of surprising because my intuition and I think a lot of people’s intuition would be that having uninformed individuals around would always make a population susceptible to manipulation by a strongly opinionated minority.”

In other words, uninformed or “ignorant” individuals act as a buffer. They tend to side with the quieter majority rather than follow the vocal minority. And in that sense, decisions are more democratic. Researchers at Princeton figured this out by studying schools of fish.

Bergstrom isn’t saying it’s good for people to be uninformed, just that it’s better to include everyone, even if they know nothing, when making decisions.