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Uncommitted newbies can foil forceful few

Decisions can be more democratic when individuals with no preset preference join a group

Odd as it sounds, adding wishy-washy members to a group can wrest control from a strongly opinionated minority and make collective decisions more democratic.

At least that’s what happened in an experiment with schooling fish and three kinds of computer simulations described in the Dec. 16 Science. “Quite counter-intuitive,” says study coauthor Iain Couzin of Princeton University. “What we’re trying to do with this paper is put out a new idea.”

Couzin is not arguing that there’s a benefit to a poorly informed electorate. But he does call for experiments to clarify the role that uninformed people with no opinion on a choice play in human consensus building.

The study “supports a growing body of evidence that larger groups are better decision makers than smaller groups,” says applied mathematician David Sumpter at the University of Uppsala in Sweden who studies collective behavior.

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