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How “Wise” is the Crowd During an Election?

America has another election coming up, and it can be useful to think about how the “crowd” encompassing the entire country behaves when deciding on its next leader.  In many situations, having a large number of people contributing to a certain decision is beneficial, because as a whole, the outliers of the crowd should balance each other out.  One example of how large crowds can be successful it when independently guessing on the number of jellybeans in a jar.  Chances are, if the crowd is large enough there will be someone who guesses correctly. The key word here is “independently.” If there was a list of guesses displayed publicly, then there could be a cascade effect where most people guess in a certain range, assuming that others are probably close to the right answer, when they may not be.  Luckily, people’s votes are not publicly displayed in an election. If they were, this would almost definitely affect the outcome of the election, probably by making the most popular candidates even more popular.

According to James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of the Crowds, there are other factor than independence that determine how effectively crowds behave.  One of these is diversity of opinion, where “each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.”  Americans do have pretty diverse opinions, so thats not a problem during elections.  Another is decentralization, where “people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.”  Americans have this too, since everyone is allowed to vote, and people can come from very different backgrounds.  Lastly, aggregation, where “some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.” This also holds for U.S. elections because counting votes is done pretty successfully (unless we’re talking about the Bush vs. Gore election, where recounts were necessary and so aggregation was somewhat flawed).   Therefore, Americans do behave wisely during elections.  But do we truly vote independently?  With all the news and media on the election these days, it is easy to let a certain channel or newspaper persuade you to vote for whoever they endorse.  Also where you live and how your family votes has an enormous impact on who you eventually vote for, so it’s hard to vote truly independently.  These are some ideas to think about when applying knowledge on crowds to America’s election system.


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