Cognitive Democracy: networked-based decision making as an alternative to markets and "nudging"

Henry Farrell (George Washington University) and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (Carnegie-Mellon/The Santa Fe Institute) have just posted a paper, "Cognitive Democracy," to Crooked Timber. Farrell and Shalizi argue that neither the "libertarian paternalist" idea of "nudging" people to good choices, nor the market-based approach of letting price signals steer our decisions produce the best possible outcome for all. They see, in the Internet, a means by which knowledge about the world can be shared widely and usefully, to help democracies function as systems for producing good outcomes for everyone.

Yet at first glance, this interchange of perspectives looks ugly: it is partisan, rancorous and vexatious, and people seem to never change their minds. This leads some on the left to argue that we need to replace traditional democratic forms with ones that involve genuine deliberation, where people will strive to be open-minded, and to transcend their interests. These aspirations are hopelessly utopian. Such impartiality can only be achieved fleetingly at best, and clashes of interest and perception are intrinsic to democratic politics.

Here, we concur with Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s important recent book (2011), which argues that politics is a response to the problem of diversity. Actors with differing—- indeed conflicting—- interests and perceptions find that their fates are bound together, and that they must make the best of this. Yet, Knight and Johnson argue, politics is also a matter of seeking to harness diversity so as to generate useful knowledge. They specifically do not argue that democracy requires impartial deliberation. Instead, they claim that partial and self-interested debate can have epistemological benefits. As they describe it, “democratic decision processes make better use of the distributed knowledge that exists in a society than do their rivals” such as market coordination or judicial decision making (p. 151). Knight and Johnson suggest that approaches based on diversity, such as those of Scott Page and Elizabeth Anderson, provide a better foundation for thinking about the epistemic benefits of democracy than the arguments of Condorcet and his intellectual heirs.

We agree. Unlike Hayek’s account of markets, and Thaler and Sunstein’s account of hierarchy, this argument suggests that democracy can both foster communication among individuals with highly diverse viewpoints. This is an argument for cognitive democracy, for democratic arrangements that take best advantage of the cognitive diversity of their population. Like us, Knight and Johnson stress the pragmatic benefits of equality. Harnessing the benefits of diversity means ensuring that actors with a very wide range of viewpoints have the opportunity to express their views and to influence collective choice. Unequal societies will select only over a much smaller range of viewpoints—- those of powerful people. Yet Knight and Johnson do not really talk about the mechanisms through which clashes between different actors with different viewpoints result in better decision making. Without such a theory, it could be that conflict between perspectives results in worse rather than better problem solving. To make a good case for democracy, we not only need to bring diverse points of view to the table, but show that the specific ways in which they are exposed to each other have beneficial consequences for problem solving.

Cognitive Democracy (via 3 Quarks Daily)


  1. Sounds hopeful. A necessary inclusion would be ongoing mechanisms to rebalance the badly tilted information asymmetries caused by the simultaneous trends of increasing government and corporate surveillance and datamining of the populace as individuals, while decreasing corporate and government transparency and accountability.

  2. See YouTube or Yahoo News comments under politically controversial material. The idea is good in principle, but in practice quickly degenerates into angry and polarising noise.

    There’s too much data out there for one to be able to make fully informed decisions across a wide variety of topics (or even for most people to care about most things – which is why vocal minorities tend to hijack democratic processes), and we are too close minded (and full of other cognitive biases) to be inclined to make such decisions, even if we could.

    This is an important issue, but we have not yet figured out a good way to address it.

    1. On the other hand, try Reddit.

      It’s far from perfect but can actually sustain some sort of intelligent discussion on contentious topics.

      1. Yeah, but redditors are a pretty self-selecting bunch, not truly representative of the average American. Democracy works well if the number of participants and their diversity (at least on principles) is not too great.

  3. It used to be that politics, and product sales, were done on logic and facts. But that changed around the 50s-60s, and has ever since been about leading us around by our base emotions.

        1. I’ve seen Century of the Self and that’s not a valid defense of your point.

          Politics – like advertising – has always been a dirty affair. Edward Bernays simply employed the use of psychoanalysis to appeal to peoples’ egos or their insecurities. His work began in the 1920s, three decades before the years you cite.

          The by-gone days that so many recall or long for – be they the 1950s or the 1850s – is simply a product of the human imagination.

          1. Well it helps to have a world war in there to stop the clock.

            Seriously, the early 50s are virtually indistinguishable from the late 30s because of the war.

  4. In a sense this is actually occurring right now.  Networking via the internet and social media have caused massive changes in the middle east (Arab Spring).  Massive internal changes are occurring in the GOP due in large part to widely available information through the internet (Facebook, YouTube, Google etc).  Just ask the RNC and State GOP leaders all across the country why Mitt Romney still has a challenge in actually locking up the delegate process. 

    The internet has made information more readily available to more people.  I think that individuals are in fact becoming more informed over a wider array of topics due to this easily accessed information. (that’s a terribly written sentence – my Sophomore English Writing Professor would be horrified – I just don’t care right now).

    Younger generations are more connected via the web and therefore seem to be absorbing information from more points of view than before.  More viewpoints are shared and acknowledged the marketplace of ideas.

    My ass is talking out my mouth.

    1. Whats funny about the arab spring is that it only really caught momentum when the various rulers cut the national net connection. And the instigator of it all was a food price hike because of a bad Russian grain harvest. Bread and circus, anyone?

  5. My own feeling is that a lot of our problems or issues arise from the fact that we are an envious species – we want whatever someone else has. 
    The traditional way of dealing with this on a large scale has been through warfare – we use physical force to take those things.  And that creates tribes and nations which is how we have progressed for most of our history.
    But warfare needs a very hierarchical and obedient decision making structure.  You simply can’t have a co-operative army that debates the best move and then executes it.    And that leads to similar political models too – we have never been able to try cognitive democracy because it can be suppressed too easily when it becomes a threat.
    We may indeed be in the middle of a transition period, or we may just be in a blip.  But it is clear that increasing numbers of people are dissatisfied with the simplistic hierarchical model, and – at the moment at least – the warfare solution is not going to suppress them without some very undesirable consequences.

  6. This article had lots of hand-waving, at tedious length.

     The central idea is that groups  of people with differing opinions who are brought together and argue for their views produce better solutions than any individual, even if all members  have confirmation bias and  use motivated reasoning – at least so long as they can be sufficiently often swayed by the good arguments of others. (Despite the length of the paper, the arguments for this are sketchy, just references with no detail of what is in those references, or why we should believe them.) Certainly this thesis is sometimes correct, but often groups seem to act stupider than all of their members.

    Actually being swayed by the arguments of others is almost entirely limited to those who did not have a strong opinion before, while making arguments is limited to those who do.

    The other systems of organization covered by the paper, hierarchies and markets, have advantages over democracy for many purposes. None of these are found in pure forms – for instance,  representative democracy has elements of hierarchy and has to deal with markets. Office discussions and meetings bring some democracy to hierarchical companies embedded in markets.

    What I think it’s more interesting is finding new ways of combining the basic systems in more effective ways.  Maybe there are  also more basic systems than just democracy, hierarchy, and markets? What about gift economies, collaborative rather than the argumentative, imperative, and exploitative modes of the other three systems?

  7. Americans seem to make political decisions based on faith and belief rather than good information. Better information in people’s heads might be achieved by a discussion culture, which we don’t have. A discussion culture might be achieved by public spaces where pedestrians might mix IRL, but we don’t have those either. Spatially, the traditional nonwork places where you might run into people and chat in the USA are bars and churches, now with the possible additions of gyms, cafés and prisons. So I remain excited about the Internet’s possibilities as a “third place” though I’ve no idea how they will or should manifest. Reddit is a great start, but could it be combined with actual meetups? Occupy was good for bringing people and discussion together in meatspace (plus I’ve never seen the neighborhood homeless happier than in those improvised villages).

    N.B.: In the absence of a discussion culture, humor seems one of the few good tools that work to persuade and teach, but that’s no way to run a democracy, especially one with so many ICBM’s.

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