A Study: People aren’t smart enough for democracy

Here is the link to this article sketching the conclusion that ordinary people aren’t smart enough to make democracy work right.

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.


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  • Sherman Nobles

    Reminds me of what Jesus said, “Wide is the gate…”

  • Norman

    LOL, so what else is new. 😉

  • rking

    Before he died George Carlin did a bit about why he doesn’t vote. He basically said that the reason the system is messed up is because of the voting public. The older I get the more I think ole George may have had a point.

  • Based on its own argument this article seems to have little value at all.

    If incompetent people are capable of recognizing competence, then it might also be the case that if the minority of people in political power are incompetent then they are incapable of supplying solutions for problems like tax-reform because they wouldn’t recognize a competent solution presented by someone with experience in the field. Sounds a lot like, “You’re too dumb to see how brilliant I am.” to me.

  • DanO

    Interesting article. Even more interesting comments included on the site.

  • Argh – it should read, “If incompetent people are INcapable of recognizing competence…”

  • John Inglis

    Gee, if you don’t get how brilliant the article is, then you must be . . . .

  • Jim

    In my high school civics class, our teacher Mr. Williams told us, “the masses are asses.” Boy, was he right!

  • As Churchill observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Because of human finitude and sin, all other options of slelcting leaders poses even greater threats to societal well-being. The wisdom of the crowd over time tends to weed out the outliers for both good and bad. On average we get people who are generally acceptable. And by limiting the powers of any one office we ensure that the really good ones and the really bad ones that do slip through are counter-balanced by the generally acceptable crowd.

    And that raises the question of how to address societal problems. Libertarians seem to think that if everyone is just left to make their own choices, the optimal social order will spontaneously emerge. Liberals think “we” should do things about our problems or “society” should do things about our problems. But when listened to carefully, “we” and “society” are frequently synonyms for centralized government. Frequently, all that seems to exist in this dialog are individuals and government.

    The answer to a great many of our problems (I did not say all) will not be found by either by spontaneous emergence or government. They will be found in communities of people working in common cause and in the revival of intermediary institutions like families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, social networks, volunteer organizations, businesses and the like. Only when we break out of the “individual or government” dichotomy and see all the stuff in between do we find solutions. When I see the world this way I don’t fret so much about the “generally acceptable” people that occupy government. Our hope doesn’t lie with them.

  • Tom F.

    Churchill (paraphrase): “Democracy is the worst form of government, except its better than every other one.”

    Probably true that democracy generates consistently mediocre results. I think consistently mediocre is better than wildly swinging from better to worse though, as often happens in more top-down governments.

    Think of China. They probably have above-average leadership right now (except for all the human rights violations). But what did they have back when Mao was in charge? Awful, nation destroying leadership.

    Still, though, studies like this may help to better design democratic processes. I’m reminded that the founders believed in a representative republic. That is, the people would be the ultimate rulers, but when it came to actually making policy decisions, that would have been much more entrusted to elected/appointed government officials.

  • Tom F.

    Jinx on the Churchill quote!


  • Matt Edwards

    Or maybe they do and it’s the “experts” who don’t recognize competence. 🙂

    Just because someone doesn’t vote like you doesn’t mean they “lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.”

    One necessary quality of a good leader is the ability to make complicated ideas clear to a non-specialist. As our knowledge of the world increases and people are forced to specialize in specific areas of expertise, this is going to be even more important.

  • #Tom 11

    This just shows the brilliant minds think alike. 😉

  • mark

    This “news” mirrors what I was taught in my schooling, namely why we have an electoral system check that can overide the democratic vote of the common masses.

    In a recent church governance discussion I noted our “elder-led” church is an analogous system to the US, perhaps needed for the same reasons?

  • Nathan

    Actually, the founders believed in the diffusion of power. That’s why they built in certain structures (we have altered) that were designed to even limit the people and their passions, and inescapable shortsightedness.

  • Scott Gay

    Very Nietzchean point of view. More politely put- the masses are revolting( or “the slave revolt on morals”). Of course, to this thinking, democracy is the “collective degeneration of man”. I really have to believe that an egalitarian trajectory is actually very aporetic, but has strengths hidden to empirical reaearch.

  • Eluros Aabye

    Have you ever read The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan? He argues that voters are inherently irrational, but why that’s actually a good thing. He’d say that your initial premise– that democracy is based upon citizens’ capacity for reasoned, balanced decision-making– is incorrect, and that it actually works well because we’re not rational.

    It’s a good book. I’d recommend it.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks, Scot, that was funny. 😀

  • Bob3

    So, let me get this straight. We need to have an elitist group, who are brilliant, take care of the rest of us poor, stumbling, bumbling wretches? Or, in the case of the tax code, maybe the brilliant could develop a system the poor, undiscerning fool could comprehend. I vote, bad choice of words, for #2.

  • Isn’t this another way of saying we get the government we deserve.

  • Okay, let’s ask another question…

    Are ordinary people smart enough (and capable enough) for our churches?

  • Chris

    And occasionally we get lucky, maybe? When the most personable happens to also be the most effective, the voters choose the best in the midst of it all?

  • Cal

    The brilliance of the sort of democracy is that it guarantees the certain kinds of men elected to office, either naive, pretty faces or manipulative, shape-shifting snakes. To sit on the throne of Babylon requires one to be drenched in the blood of one’s competition. Sadly most Christians in America wave the flag and cheer on the legions and don’t bat an eye to consider if they’re serving two lords.

  • JohnM

    Note – The full title of the article is “People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say”

    Well. Scientists say. Alrighty then. Somebody smarter than me (not so hard to be), what do you call government by scientific elite? It would surely be brilliant whatever you call it. But then maybe I’m not competent to judge 🙂

  • DRT

    First, mediocrity is not all that bad. More variability toward the extremes is also known as risk, and more risk in government doesn’t suit most people.

    Second, we were supposed to have a representative democracy where people elected people to power who were more wise than they are. That seems to have gotten lost. It is the more crafty that get elected.

    And last, I liked the “masses are asses” the comment best.

  • scotmcknight

    What Michael Kruse said.

  • Susan N.

    I’m still in a good humor over this “study.”

    Check out this related link:


    While I was browsing article titles, and before exiting the site, I glimpsed this one, “Why did it take so long to invent the wheel?”

    😀 I must be getting tired and punchy. I find this hilarious!

  • When asked what kind of government our founding fathers had “created”- Ben Franklin is reported to have said…”A Republic, if you can keep it.” It’s obvious we have not been able to keep said form of Government. The consequence – the majority, even in its incompetence, rules the day. So much for “we the people.” Having said that, even when the majority speaks the minority cries foul and whines until they get their way. Go figure.

  • Tom

    We the people would not need to be experts on tax reform or any other policy if we focused more on the character of the people we elected instead of ideology. Both left and right want no part of any character discussion.

  • DRT

    Scot, Michael is not that great! He is not reliable, he comes and goes, and… he writes too much! RJS should scold him for that. And… and… I am a fan too…

  • DRT

    …and let’s not hear any of that assimilation stuff now Michael. Resistance is not futile.

  • DRT

    Susan, I like that too. My wife has an uncle who is just a bit older than us that is reputed to be 200+. Well, with an ivy league M.D. and anesthesiology degree, JD, MBA, business owner, and if you met him you would never suspect. Also finishes trivial pursuit first turn… Nicest guy ever. When I first met him I was in awe, of course, and he told me that he does not make his money from any of that. He makes it from bringing people together … ( he is RC BTW ).

  • Richard Armour

    Michael Kruse nailed it in comment #9. Well said Michael.

  • Jan I

    Voices like this will always exist. It was the same people who critisized Gutenbergs press and that women could vote. Elitism in it’s truest form.