People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish

People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say

The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it. But a growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is,” Dunning told Life’s Little Mysteries.

He and colleague Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now of New York University, have demonstrated again and again that people are self-delusional when it comes to their own intellectual skills. Whether the researchers are testing people’s ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess, the duo has found that people always assess their own performance as “above average” — even people who, when tested, actually perform at the very bottom of the pile. [Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It]

We’re just as undiscerning about the skills of others as about ourselves. “To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people,” Dunning said. In one study, the researchers asked students to grade quizzes that tested for grammar skill. “We found that students who had done worse on the test itself gave more inaccurate grades to other students.” Essentially, they didn’t recognize the correct answer even when they saw it.

The reason for this disconnect is simple: “If you have gaps in your knowledge in a given area, then you’re not in a position to assess your own gaps or the gaps of others,” Dunning said. Strangely though, in these experiments, people tend to readily and accurately agree on who the worst performers are, while failing to recognize the best performers.

The most incompetent among us serve as canaries in the coal mine signifying a larger quandary in the concept of democracy; truly ignorant people may be the worst judges of candidates and ideas, Dunning said, but we all suffer from a degree of blindness stemming from our own personal lack of expertise.

Mato Nagel, a sociologist in Germany, recently implemented Dunning and Kruger’s theories by computer-simulating a democratic election. In his mathematical model of the election, he assumed that voters’ own leadership skills were distributed on a bell curve — some were really good leaders, some, really bad, but most were mediocre — and that each voter was incapable of recognizing the leadership skills of a political candidate as being better than his or her own. When such an election was simulated, candidates whose leadership skills were only slightly better than average always won.

Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they “effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders.”

This story was provided by Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life’s Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.


John Forest

1- As we advance in our ability to ask better questions and expect, through technology, to receive reliable answers in the neurosciences our assumptions about ourselves are going to evermore butt up against new found realities. Much of what we find will be anti-intuitive and/or unflattering. I don’t find this surprising. It would seem to me that a hopeful rosy assessment of ones self (despite obvious or subtle evidence to the contrary) is likely built-in to our psyche. This would make sense from an evolutionary standpoint as self confidence would be a component of generalized success.

2- The answers that we are beginning to find will cause us re-evaluate our historical choices and responses to various situations including those in the political arena. Barring an apocalyptic collapse, we will face an increasingly complex and globally interrelated society in which we can expect heightened pressure to make advantageous, rational, evidence based decisions. This will be difficult enough under the best conditions and we can presume that we will not be operating under the best conditions. One of those conditions is that even the most intelligent and rational humans (upon whom we depend for answers) themselves depend upon a brain design evolved over millions of years to live in a simpler and more brutal environment.

3- It is clear to those who work in the neurosciences or read about this work, that humans are not what we imagined ourselves to be. This is problematic in that we have, in large measure, arranged our societies and institutions based on our “hopeful rosy assessments” of ourselves.

4- I would suggest that even the best and brightest among us do not possess enough evidence to fully advise us. However, I can say with some confidence that direct Democracy was not favored by the framers of the Constitution. Illustrative of the foresight displayed in that document is the fact that centuries later our current scientific evidence is largely coinciding with their thoughtful intuitions.

David Oehl  Albany, New York

Oh, you humans, this is not a Republican/ Democrat thing. Do you all remember the Haber process? It’s the industrial process that is the starting point for manufacturing artificial fertilizer for agriculture. It was invented 100 years ago by a German who was concerned that humanity was running out of food. But guess what? We still haven’t solved the hunger problem! Now we’re trying to genetically engineer staple crops to be drought resistant. Etcetera. People are not sophisticated enough to realize that the answer to world hunger is to STOP HAVING CHILDREN. But we can’t even do that!

Natasha Thoday 

That’s because you have phrased it poorly. How about have sufficient children for a sustainable stable population within the carrying capacity of the planet?

Lance J Konover

This explains how fact based campaigning is a waste of time and money. Appeal to emotions – that bypasses intellect and motivates everyone. Charisma over policy.
It’s difficult for a plain looking person to beat a good looking one. An exciting speaker who works the crowd can have everything wrong and still win an election. People can be manipulated to vote against their own interests – and do in nearly every election.

Jared Valdron 

This isn’t anything new; with a decent exposure to political science and a lack of delusion concerning human nature, recognizing this is elementary. It’s nice to see that someone’s quantifying it though.

Lyn Samuel 

To be able to vote is like having sex, its not just for beautiful intelligent people, there is no alternative in a democratic society.  stupid ugly people get to vote, have sex and procreate. The alternative would look like the holocaust.

Who determines who votes, who can have children, what societies flourish and who dies to a large extent is already happening look no further than Greece. The UN / IMF / NATO alliance is already making these decisions for us.

The UN / Agenda 21 is the most evil document I have ever read, wrapped up in candy for the stupid people to eat!


Rodrigo Vanegas

It wouldn’t be necessary to expect extraordinary competence or intelligence if messaging were less laissez-faire. The trouble isn’t that the masses are too easy to con. It’s that it’s too easy to con them when you have unlimited budgets, and the money all comes from special interests.

There isn’t anyone intelligent enough, including the scientists who put their name to these studies, who can outwit a sufficiently well funded con, if they are the specific targets and they don’t have the comparable financial means to counter-investigate.

The research sets out to disprove a premise: “The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it.”

I would ask what qualifies as “seeing it”. I would argue that in today’s system, only the over-educated elite see anything, because only they have the resources to be informed independently of the messaging AND because they are a small minority and so are rarely targets of the con.

But if the messaging were regulated, a sufficient majority would see past the cons often enough to make democracy work.

Paul Howard Sorensen · San Diego State

“The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens… can recognize… the best policy idea.” Not really. Democracy relies more on two other assumptions: that it is immoral for a government to rule without the consent of those governed, and political ambition (and power) corrupt even the most capable of people. In other words, 1 a dictator who is an expert on tax policy is still a dictator, and 2 it’s only a matter of time before that dictator’s sense of good policy is overruled by his selfish desire to exploit his power and persecute his enemies.


Stacy Fisher ·   · Writer/Proofreader/Photographer at Mountain Valley Living Magazine

I’m not certain, and I’m not saying I agree necessarily, but I think this is attributed to Alexander Fraser Tyler: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”

Gary Hamilton 

This is a simple logic problem – how can folks that don’t have a skill figure out who does? This is the conundrum that plagues managers. But this research suffers from the flawed assumption that voters are looking for someone with skills – instead they are looking for leaders that say and do things that they like, including voting for laws that they want, and fixing stuff that we all need. The research Danial Gilbert has done on our happiness with our choices is closer to the truth here.

trastrick (signed in using yahoo)

There is a bigger problem with democracy, a built in limitation so to speak.

Successful societies are built from human endeavour, hard work and yes, militancy.

Once such a society reaches maturity, and its citizens reach a level of personal comfort, they tend to reject the very principles that built their society, in fact they quickly lose their taste for actual production and militancy. (creators of wealth are vilified, as is the military) and growing numbers join the ranks of the recipients of government largess.

Faced and encouraged by such a populace, politicians of all stripes begin to recognize that to obtain, or stay in power, one must outbid the other in promising more governmant largesse, more individual entitlements. The so-called leaders become nothing more than political enablers.

It of course is unsustainable, a giant Ponzi scheme, and society will decline as the number of producers is outpaced by the numbers of cradle to grave recipients and the growing numbers of bureaucrats.

People ARE actually smart enough to understand this, but personal greed and envy rules their lives. They are happy to defer that painful day when the bills inevitable become due to some future generation.

But, as that society is in decline, other societies, still who hold productivity and militancy in high esteem, will come to dominate.

So history repeats. It is inevitable, because it is human nature.

Joshua David Zambrano ·

But on the other hand, you get complexity buildup over time in such a system so that people can’t identify corruption. The wealthy CEOs will use lobbyists to sway politicians into complicating the system so it can’t be identified when corruption or occurs to the average voter. You get tax havens for the wealthy, relaxation of anti-monopolization regulations, free trade agreements so jobs can go overseas, tax breaks for the wealthy, etc. All the wealth clogs up in the top 5% of Americans, which is what’s happened. And it’s not trickling down.

David Sautner

Immanuel Kant said that a man can be brilliant, ingenius, and wise and still be evil while even the most illiterate common man knows the difference between right and wrong, in other words, every one of us is in possesion of a good will but whether we choose to use it or not is a matter of our character (honesty, integrity, compassion, courage, loyaltly, fortitude… can you think of any others?) and not our intellect. The most ignorant of us knows evil when they see it. What hubris to base the knowledge of good and evil on intellect!

Joshua David Zambrano ·

You’ve got a good point. Voters can have good hearts but be deceived by corrupt, intelligent leaders (or stupid leaders who just learned trickery well). Our study of deception has reached the level of art, just look at marketing strategy.

Brian Meadows 

Considering the record of every other form of government, and that democracies don’t go to war with one another, I’ll stick with Winston Churchill’s line about democracy being the worst form of government EXCEPT for every other system our species has formed to date!

Mike Guilmette 

There is one glaring issue that undermines this article — the authors do not define what constitutes “best,” “competent,” “incompetent” or “leadership.” If you use a blind metric to back your claims, you can say anything as long as you lead with an inflammatory conclusion.

Charlie Reed

I guess I’ll have to buy the book to find out if the authors admit that they stole the concept from Plato and Polybios. And it’s not intelligence that limits voting competency; it’s intellectual complacency. A populace that’s exposed to intelligent debate is better informed than a populace that is bombarded with Snooki. Guess it’s too late to turn back, though.

David Schueler 

They didn’t steal anything. Whether they got the idea from Plato and Polybios or not, the point of the study is not to introduce a concept or a claim. It’s to TEST a claim. It is an experimental result, something the ancient Greeks were notoriously horrible at.

Forrest Crock 

I don’t think it has to do with intelligence as much as laziness. Most people are smart enough to understand a variety of concepts, but just don’t want to put the effort to accomplish the task. It is so much easier to say, hey I am a liberal so I will vote democrat, more than doing the research. You can’t even just listen to what they say (even though that is near impossible, because the news just gives soundbites), you have to look into their voting record (if they are running for re-election) or try to figure out their past if they are being elected for the first time.

Joshua David Zambrano

Very well said. Americans have become all about convenience, taking the easy way out. Employers don’t care about hiring the best employees, so rather than testing and looking for ability, they just go by superficial qualifications that are easy to look at. Likewise voters, rather than looking at candidates on a case-by-case basis, researching voting records and news articles to make informed choices, will just vote blindly for a party’s candidates or a source they think they can trust, who tells them who to vote for. It’s no wonder there are more and more inventions to remove the smallest need for patience or work from our lives, Americans are all about convenience.

Joshua David Zambrano 

According to the article’s conclusion, “Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they ‘effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders.'”.

If this were the case, then why do elected officials score lower on civic literacy tests than [un]elected officials? We are electing dumber officials than the average person, because the skills they are better at are lying and people skills. Put together dumb celebrities and corrupt liars and you get the perfect formula for today’s politician.


Harvey Bohn, well said. Federal power steals wealth from one citizen to buy votes from another. The doom of the republic was sealed when it started down this path.

The authors of these studies do not understand how democracy works. You do not have to be able to design a car to know if it is a lemon, or be able to create a movie to know if is a bomb. Similarly, any ordinary person can tell when the government is not working for him, even if he does not know the solution. That is how feedback systems work. The problem is that the government does not have to listen to us.

David Oates, you are absolutely correct about the federal power grab. However, I would assert that the illegal federal power grab began LONG before the 1980s.  Where does the Constitution give the federal government the authority to take money and property from one man by force and give it to another man under the guise of a federal “program”? By what contract between the federal government and the people does the federal government have the authority to intervene in local education or medicine?

The federal government is not a kind benefactor. It is brutal, blind force.

Will Fischer · Works at Los Alamos National Laboratory

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
— from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947
Joshua David Zambrano

This is a knock on Representative Democracy specifically, not other forms of Democracy such as Direct Democracy, where Representatives are not deciding the major issues and bills, but the people themselves. I would argue the problems stems from the corruption in the system due to the representatives themselves – lobbyists, lawyers, and politicians hold their jobs precisely because they’ve become experts at deceiving the populace. It just means they’ve gotten very good at lying, and we need to let people decide the bills and issues for themselves without the crooked middlemen, whenever possible.
Polls of the populace show they actually hold much more moderate and sensible views on issues like fixing the economy, abortion, and ethical reforms than the politicians they’ve elected. Just because they are bad at electing politicians does not mean they are not good at deciding the bills and issues which matter most.

My point was that politicians are good at lying, and people make the mistake of listening to what they say, rather than checking their voting records. Obama exemplified that flaw in approach, a guy whose words are as smooth as butter, and will flat-out lie repeatedly when any moron double-checking his voting record would see he’s just making stuff up out of thin air.

Just because people are not educated on how to check voting records and see through the honed lying expertise of politicians, which the politicians now have down to an art, does not mean they are incompetent in other ways regarding democracy. Were they allowed to run the system themselves, they’d do a much better job than those they’ve elected.

Scott Huffman · Manufacturing Engineer at Celestica

“The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it. ”
I think that this is a false premise. Democracy is about having the people have a say in their future. Sometimes the best leader isn’t the most competent person but the one that people will most likely follow. It is hard to lead a reluctant population without guns and bayonets. giving them a vote gets them on board.

Scott, whether you sense the gun at your head or not, we are being governed by force. Furthermore, might I suggest that a republic cannot long exist without an educated and moral population. The USA has neither. Can you not see the demise of this country before you?

Horace Spinkelmeister · Top Commenter

Next thing you know, we will be electing a community organizer who has no experience and no credentials … without even bothering to discover who the heck he is or where in the heck he came from. The aforementioned scenario is not all that farfetched. It could happen. Throw up a few fake Roman columns, fill up a stadium with a bunch of hypnotized half-wits, load a teleprompter reel with some phony platitudes … voila – a totally incompetent nincompoop.

Joshua David Zambrano 

Bert Cisneros, the same public that elected Obama elected Bush. Talk about being 0 for 2.


About arnash

“When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” - Mark Twain - Politicians and diapers - change 'em often, for the same reason. "Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other." Ronald Reagan "Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views." William F. Buckley, Jr. “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” - Bertrand Russell The people are the masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert it. Abraham Lincoln “Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” - George Orwell “Satan will use a lake of truth to hide a pint of poison”.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: