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New Research Shows Vocal Minorities Unlikely To Sway Democratic Process

Using computer models and schools of fish, behavior scientists test the impact of outspoken minorities in group decision making.

The polarized nature of politics today tends toward noisy, outspoken fringe minorities attempting to influence the voting behavior and talking points of the majority middle. On the right we’ve seen a sustained outspoken Tea Party campaigning for limited government and distrustful of the Federal establishment. On the left we’ve seen a recent groundswell in the form of Occupy Wall Street, people also distrustful of the establishment, but in its cozy relationship with the private sector. The question becomes, “Just how influential are these outspoken minorities in influencing the political landscape?” Recent behavioral science may have the answer.

Behavioral scientists have often wondered how social dynamics influence group decision-making, particularly in situations in which members of the group have little knowledge or are indifferent to the outcome. In such instances, there has been evidence to show that a small but outspoken minority may swing the undecided, which can distort the democratic process. However, the most recent findings reported in Ars Technica, show that more often, the undecided population is more likely to swing in favor of the majority, no matter how vocally either side attempts to manipulate them. In other words, a naïve or ignorant demographic actually improves the quality of a democratic decision-making process.

Researchers came to this conclusion using a combination of computer models and actual animals; ones that exhibit strong social behaviors. Schools of fish. The computer models, created with contrived preferences and virtual animals, showed that when an outspoken minority is paired with an indifferent majority, or the preferences of the minority were significantly stronger than the preferences of the majority, the minority would skew the results. However, as long as the majority maintained some level of preference, the majority would always win out.

Afterward, the researchers recreated the parameters of the experiment with Gold Shiners, a very social species of fish. Some of the fish they trained to want to travel to a specific location, while others were trained to choose another. The ratios of one preferential group over another were changed, and untrained fish (supposedly the “maive or ignorant” group) were introduced as well. The results mirrored those of the virtual models, with the untrained fish siding with the majority.

What’s to be taken from this little experiment? In any political discourse, small fringe movements are not nearly as intrinsically effective as one might believe. Of course, when the media covers more vitriolic fringe groups, like the Tea Party, it may screw how the uncommitted middle is swayed. Behaviorally, at least, it’s likely that either the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street movement, are not likely to greatly influence the ultimate outcome of the 2012 elections, other than to help to frame the issues. For those with pet agendas, this may not be welcome news, but it's nice to know that group dynamics have a kind of intrinsic "stabilizer" ignorant people.