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Weird Science

A new study suggests that uninformed voters may help, not hinder, democratic decisions.
A silly study says people who walk
A silly study says people who walk

A new study suggests that uninformed voters may help, not hinder, democratic decisions.

A team lead by Iain Couzin, a professor of animal behaviour at Princeton University, published a paper on democratic decision-making in animals this week in Science.

People have long assumed that uninformed individuals allow for the spread of extreme views, Couzin says, so he and his team sought to test this theory with computer models. In the model, animals generally followed their neighbours but could also prefer one direction to another. They could also hold onto that preference with a certain amount of strength.

The team found that when all animals had a preference, the herd’s movement was determined by the strength behind those preferences, rather than the number of animals that held them — whichever animals held onto their preference the strongest set the herd’s direction, even if they were in the minority.

This changed when they added animals with no preference (uninformed voters). Since these animals had no motivation beyond “follow your neighbour,” simple odds meant that they tended to side with the more numerous majority view. The herd followed the majority, no matter how strongly the minority held its preference.

Couzin’s team next tested these ideas with golden shiners (a minnow often used as bait).

They trained some of the fish to swim towards either a yellow or blue target, and left the rest untrained. The fish seemed to really like the colour yellow for some reason, so the team used yellow-trained fish to represent informed voters with an entrenched view. The blue-trained fish became the informed voters with a moderate view.

When they dropped a school of six blue-lovers and five yellow-lovers into a tank with separate yellow and blue targets, the school swam towards the yellow one — the minority ruled. When they added five and then 10 untrained fish, however, the school went towards blue — the majority ruled.

This shows how uniformed voters can suppress extremist views, Couzin says, resulting in more democratic decisions. “Ignorance isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he concludes — uninformed voters can prevent deadlock and fragmentation caused by vocal minorities.

This does not necessarily mean better decisions, he adds — the majority might be wrong, for example, and the minority might have a great idea. His models also found that too many uninformed voters led to chaos —there were not enough informed animals to guide the herd, which led to paralysis or random decisions.

This is a fascinating study that reflects real-life elections, says Mayor Nolan Crouse. Because most voters are uninformed, it’s the influence of the few informed ones that sways elections. “It’s the movement of the whisper campaign that causes the majority of the shifting to go on.”

A tongue-in-cheek study suggests that people may be able to avoid Death by walking faster.

Danijela Gnjidic, a clinical pharmacology researcher at the University of Sydney, co-authored a study this week in BMJ (the British Medical Journal, which publishes intentionally silly studies at this time of year). The study set out to calculate the preferred walking speed of the Grim Reaper, the personification of death.

Research has found that the slowest walkers tend to be about three times more likely to die than the fastest ones, says Gnjidic. “We thought, what if the Grim Reaper’s involved in it?”

Her team theorized that slow walkers were more likely to die because they were more likely to be caught by Death (described as a figure with “a black cloak with cowl, a scythe, and cachexia [physical wasting].” If they calculated the speed of Death, they could help people outrun it.

The team used data from the Concord Health and Ageing in Men Project, which tracked about 1,700 men aged 70-plus in Sydney for about five years. Death itself was not a part of the study (which only covered living subjects), so they estimated its speed based on the pace of the study participants.

The team found that men who walked faster than about three kilometres an hour were 1.23 times less likely to die than those who were slower, suggesting that this was the Reaper’s speed “under working conditions.” There were zero deaths amongst study members who walked at five km/hr. or more, suggesting that this was the Reaper’s top speed. “For those wishing to avoid their allotted fate,” they wrote, “this would be the advised walking speed.”

Walking speed is an important health outcome in the elderly, Gnjidic says, as sick people don’t walk very fast. Improve your walking speed over time, she adds, and you improve your health, making you less likely to meet the Reaper.

The team notes that the study did not account for death-dodging devices such as “invisibility cloaks, resurrection stones, and elder wands,” the influence of intelligence (for games with Death), or singing while depressed (which could act as a magical incantation against Death).

The study is available at

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