Study of Fish Suggests the Value of Uninformed Voters


Could the golden shiner prove the salvation of our democracy? New research involving the common minnow suggests that uninformed voters are important in blunting the effects of political extremists. Getty Images

As Congress proves itself increasingly dysfunctional and captive to extremists, lots of people may be asking themselves: What kind of fish-brained voters keep electing these guys?

A team of researchers led by a Princeton University biologist has now studied that question and concluded that without all our know-nothing fellow citizens, things might be even worse.

The team, led by Iain D. Couzin, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, carried out its work with a type of fish known as golden shiners. The group trained some of the fish to associate food with a blue target and trained a smaller number of the fish to associate food with yellow, a color the fish more naturally prefer.

Placed together, most fish pursued yellow targets, suggesting the smaller group’s more intense desire for yellow overwhelmed the larger group’s numerical advantage, Mr. Couzin reported. But as fish without any training were added, the group increasingly favored the blue target, he said.

“A strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice,” the research team wrote in its report, published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science. “But the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously inhibits this process, returning control to the numerical majority.”

The behavior of golden shiners demonstrates “the role of uninformed individuals in achieving democratic consensus amid internal group conflict and informational constraints,” wrote the research team, which included experts in biology, physics and engineering from Princeton, the University of Sussex in England, and the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems in Germany.

In a separate commentary in the same issue, two authors from the University of Washington at Seattle, Carl T. Bergstrom, an associate professor of biology, and Jevin D. West, a biology research associate, said they agreed the work by Mr. Couzin’s group showed that “uninformed agents can promote democratic outcomes in collective decision problems.”

“Jefferson’s passionate arguments on the importance of education for democratic society notwithstanding,” the commenters wrote, the Couzin team has “identified circumstances in which ignorance can promote democracy.”

Such ideas, however, appear to enjoy less support among university researchers with actual experience studying how humans resolve political disputes.

“The claims they make are not ones made by political scientists,” said Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. “In fact, they are opposite.”

Human civilization, said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, “is better off when more of its members are well informed and think carefully about the choices facing the society.”

Both Ms. Vavreck and Mr. Sabato said they could accept some broad analogies, such as the idea that voters can sometimes change directions quickly like a school of fish, and that vocal minorities can sometimes influence weakly committed members of a majority.

But they challenged the notion that people with less intense preferences are necessarily less informed, and the implication of Mr. Couzin’s study that a minority group is necessarily on the “wrong” side of a debate–citing, for example, civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

Mr. Couzin said in an interview that the study of animal behaviors to model various forms of social interaction among humans, in such areas as economic trends and consumer preferences, was well established.

But he acknowledged that human political relationships are far more complicated than the behavior of fish. “To apply this idea to specific systems,” Mr. Couzin said, “one would have to make specific models.”

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