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

Natalie Wolchover, Yahoo! News, February 28, 2012

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. {snip}


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.”


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  • candide

    But academics are even less able to cope with reality!

    • JohnEngelman

      Although politicians I vote for often lose elections I prefer an electorate chosen by universal adult suffrage to any elite, whether it is of intellect, wealth, or birth. 

  • I W

    This story is old hat, except that in other (very similar) studies I have read, Competent people often Underrate their ability signifigantly, while the incompetent overestimate their abilities -and by extention the abilities/ ideas of others.

    Frankly, I have long advocated the idea of 1 IQ point = 1 vote; I mean -why should the hydrocephelac mopping the floor at McDonald’s have the same power over society as someone with the mental acuity of Steven Hawking? At the very least there should be a minimum IQ required to exercise ‘soverign franchise’ or ‘voting’.

    Personally I LOVED R.A. Heinlein’s suggestion that (paraphrasing here) in order to vote -a person enters the booth and a quadratic equation appears on the screen; if they answer correctly, they then cast their vote; if they do not answer correctly the booth opens -empty- and their remains are shipped to their next of kin.

    But I digress…

    True Blue

    • It could just be 8th grade math that would keep most urban votes out.

    • Personally I LOVED R.A. Heinlein’s suggestion that (paraphrasing here)
      in order to vote -a person enters the booth and a quadratic equation
      appears on the screen; if they answer correctly, they then cast their
      vote; if they do not answer correctly the booth opens -empty- and their
      remains are shipped to their next of kin.

      Something only a native Missourian would come up with.  Ya grok?

    • anonymous_amren

      One problem with that sort of idea is that smart people know little about what it’s like to mop the floors at McDonalds, and have little sympathy for people who do. There are plenty of occupations that have practically no smart people working in them. And without that information, it’s hard for smart people to make the right choices. Your solution gets around that problem a bit by still letting stupid people vote at a rate close to that of smart people. So it might work.

      Steven Hawking may have mental acuity, but he’s also an egotistical and unprincipled con-artist exploiting political correctness to make himself seem like a far better physicist than his lousy ideas merit. I’m not sure I’d trust his vote any more than someone of average IQ.

      • Especially since Hawking is still trolling Africa trying to find a genius.

      • Guest

        I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks Hawking is seriously over-rated.

    • WhitesRdumb

      “I have long advocated the idea of 1 IQ point = 1 vote”

      There are many educated idiots in this country. Look at any University. Do you want all those people deciding on who governs you? Common sense does not go up with IQ. I have seen a few people with around 80 IQ make better decisions than a person with over 150 IQ

  • anarchyst

    We don’t have a “democracy” in the USA, but have a “representative republic”.  A “democracy” consists of two wolves and a sheep deciding “what to have for dinner”.
    Democracies don’t work, never have and never will.

    • JohnEngelman

      Name a democracy that did not work. 

      • anarchyst

        Greece, back in the day . . .

      • The_Bobster

        Egypt last year. One man. One vote. One time.

      • JohnEngelman

        anarchyst, & The_Bobster,
        Ancient Athens is a bad example. It was a direct democracy. Only a fairly small minority of Athenians were able to take part in it.  Before universal education and inexpensive reading materials it was difficult for most people living under a democratic government to be informed of current events.  The oldest representative democracies in the world are those of Great Britain and the United States. No serious observer expects either to devolve into a dictatorship. Czarist Russia and Imperial Germany, Italy, and Japan experimented with democracy before adopting totalitarian dictatorships. The future of democracy in Russia is uncertain, but democracy appears to be stable in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Once a democratic government lasts for two or three generations it is fairly stable. 
        Politics under a democracy is fairly stable, because the majority of voters will not make fundamental changes in their political beliefs. The United States took a strong turn to the left in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt was elected, and a strong turn to the right in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. Nevertheless, most Americans who voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928 voted for him in 1932. Most Americans who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 voted for him in 1980. 

      • William_JD

        Name a democracy.

    • William_JD

      No, that is a complete misunderstanding of democracy.  Democracy means consensus, i.e., unanimity.  It is true that the people can unanimously agree that a majority vote will decide certain issues, but two wolves and a sheep would never unanimously agree to a majority vote to decide “what to have a dinner”, so your illustration has nothing to do with democracy.

      • anarchyst

        Not true.  Democracy of two wolves and a sheep would result in the sheep being the wolves “meal” 
        Democracy does not demand unanimity, but a simple majority. 
         Two wolves and a sheep will end up being two well-fed wolves.
        Best regards.

        • William_JD

          No, you’re not paying attention.  You’re talking about najority rule, which has absolutely nothing to do with democracy.

          Democracy is rule by the people acting unanimously.

  • Christopher_Nelson

    Are people smart enough to know the difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic?

    • JohnEngelman

      A representative democracy is synonymous with either. 

    • William_JD

      You obviously don’t know the difference.  A democracy is a system in which the people make all decisions unanimously.  A constitutional republic is just one form of democracy.

      • Christopher_Nelson

        Apparently  the founders didn’t know the difference either, because they were anti-democracy.  A republic is not a form of democracy. A democracy is majority rule. Individual rights can be trampled upon.  In a constitutional republic, the individual rights of a person are protected by a constitution. The majority cannot violate those constitutional rights.

  • Actually, “democracy” can and does “flourish” with an electorate of stupid people.  It’s just that they’re not understanding “democracy” literally.  Moronika for Morons will constantly elect demagogues who enact and expand welfare programs as much as possible.

  • JohnEngelman

    Years ago on his “Firing Line” William Buckley gave the best justification of democracy I ever heard. He said, “Democracy is not an intelligence test. It is a means of saying ‘No’.” 
    Decisions will always be made by various elites. If the decisions cause harm to too many people the electorate will say, “No,” the composition of the elite or elites will change, and there will be different decisions. 

    • PlayingRootsBackwards1

      All of this pro-democracy talk brought to mind a line from my textbook for a 1970’s  upper level psychology class on perception:  Reality is 90% perception, and perception is affected by expectations.

      I know that a person with an IQ less than 105 cannot significantly benefit from participation in college. (Some psychometric researchers place the threshold at 115.)
      The average IQ of the 62% of White Americans with IQ’s less than 105 is 92. The average, of course, is far lower for the mestizos and the descendants of cannibals. 

      Thanks to dumbed-down course work, affirmative action and free rides for dimwits of all colors, we now have many millions of college graduates who couldn’t have made it through Junior High as recently as the 1960’s. We therefore have a pool of  “educated” voters who aren’t even qualified to make grown up decisions about their own diets, let alone about who gets to run our government.

      The people who were too dumb to make it to and through our diploma mills also get their moment in the booth.

      Do you actually think we can achieve a favorable results from an election when its outcome is determined by how well the candidates manipulate the expectations of stupid Whites, mestizos and descendants of cannibals through the use of sensationalized talking points about relatively unimportant topics?

      I don’t.

      It’s time to implement restrictions on who gets to vote. I would prefer a criteria that would only allow tax-paying persons who can pass a literacy test and provide positive proof of U.S. citizenship to vote in ANY election.

      Stupid people determine what ends up in movie theaters, on store shelves and on television and radio. They “vote” when they make their selections and thereby limit the choices of people who capable of comprehending that the stuff in the middle of Twinkies isn’t whipped cream. The people who gave you that cram packed chip isle at the super market should not be choosing the people who decide where our tax dollars and bombers go.

      Politicians talk almost exclusively about dumb issues because they are well aware of the cognitive abilities of vast majority of the voters who will hear their words. A smaller and smarter voting pool will force politicians to say and DO smarter things.


  • JohnEngelman

    During the Great Depression some intellectuals in France, Great Britain, and the United States lost confidence in democracy.  Dictatorships seemed to respond better to the Great Depression. The Depression did not effect the Soviet Union. It had little effect on Fascist Italy. When the Nazis took power in Germany that country recovered faster than the democracies.
    In an essay written after the Second World War George Orwell took note of this and said that a democracy is less likely to make catastrophically foolish military decisions. To illustrate his point he said that a democratic Germany would have been less likely to invade the Soviet Union after failing to conquer Great Britain, and less likely to declare war on the United States after failing to defeat Great Britain and the USSR. 
    At about the same time Bertrand Russell said that the spread of democracy was partly inspired by the fact that since the eighteenth century in major wars the more democratic side always won. 

    • The_Bobster

      How many countries has our “Democracy” invaded over the past three decades? 

      • Sonya610

        And democracy doesn’t always produce the results that the puppet masters want.  The reining US administration was none to happy when democracy handed Hamas a landslide win.

      • JohnEngelman

        By my count Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mistakes, but they were not catastrophic mistakes like the German invasion of the Soviet Union. 

    • I may agree with all this- but what’s when it comes to the survival ? Pre-Nazi Germany wasn’t in any way endangered.

      Now, the dominant group in the US- European Americans- are explicitly sentenced to death, a protracted one (205os is the date). Who in his sane mind would acquiesce to become replaced or reduced to minority in his own land ?

      Would Russians just sit & watch Chinese swamping their land while they- Russians- become, say, 40% of the population ? Or Italians in Italy happily accepting that Arabs will rule, as a 70% majority, Jamahirriyat-al-Italia ?

      Democracy is best when there is an ethno- racial-cultural substratum that wants it & plays by the rules. Otherwise, survival takes precedence, and other forms of government may be better. In emergency, rules are changed.

      • JohnEngelman

        If one feels something strongly it is easy to overestimate the number of people who feel the same way, and easy to underestimate the difficulty of converting others to one’s persuasion.
        Most of us who post on American Renaissance agree that immigration should be reduced. Nevertheless, most Americans either disagree, or they do not agree strongly. The elites of both major parties favor open borders.
        Any alternative to our existing democracy, whether it might be a serious restriction of the suffrage, or a dictatorship,  will probably be dominated by the business community. If it is, current limits on immigration will be ended. 

        • I agree that Americans, as a group- I mean Whites- are not conscious enough & will be manipulated for pretty long time yet. Also, I don’t see that reversal of suicidal trends is possible- now-  because the majority are still “asleep”.

          What will be, I don’t know, I am not a fortune teller. But, what I do know that democracy, if structured that way that leads to replacement or marginalization of the dominant people- THE people- is obnoxious and actually lunatic form of government, and any other- dictatorship is the most proven candidate- is better.

          The best would be to stop the immigration that radically changes the population structure (no such changes in Jordan, Japan, Switzerland, South Korea, Argentina,…) & keep the democracy.

        • The_Bobster

          Most of us who post on American Renaissance agree that immigration should be reduced. Nevertheless, most Americans either disagree, or they do not agree strongly.


          Wrong again.

          What’s revealing in the poll is that there is a significant—in fact, oceanic—division between what the leaders of the country think and what the public thinks about how much of a threat immigration represents.

          Asked how big a threat are large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States over the next 10 years, the public responded that they represent a “critical” threat by some 60 percent. A mere 14 percent of the leaders, on the other hand, that mass immigration is a critical threat.

          More specifically, the poll asked leaders and the public how much of a threat such immigration was—a “critical,” an “important but not critical,” or “not important” threat. Of the leaders, 45 percent said it was “important but not critical,” while only 31 percent of the public thought that. Only 8 percent of the public thought mass immigration was not important at all, as opposed to 41 percent of the leaders who thought so.

          Adding the categories, then, the poll finds that 91 percent of the American public believe mass immigration is a critical or important threat to the country in the next decade.

          Probably nothing in public life in recent years shows so clearly the vast differences between how elites and the public at large view mass immigration. It goes far to explain why nothing is ever done to control immigration: The people with power and influence don’t regard immigration as a threat.

          • JohnEngelman

            The VDare article was dated  October 24, 2002. It did not post a link to the poll it mentioned. On several occasions I have pointed out that immigration divides the elites of both major parties from the rank and file. 
            The following website lists a number of more recent polls that indicate that public opinion on immigration is fairly nuanced. 

  • JohnEngelman

    Those of minority persuasions may enjoy fantasizing living under a dictator who agrees with them. Nevertheless, they are better off living under an electorate that disagrees with them, than a dictator who disagrees with them.
    The problem with enlightened despotism is that while enlightenment cannot be institutionalized, despotism can be and is.

  • MikeofAges

    The problem is, the supposedly competent don’t always know what they are doing outside of their own area of competence. Also, there is a difference between competence and expertise. Competence pertains to the ability to do something correctly, like repair a car or perform heart surgery. Expertise is more nebulous concept. It really means the ability to offer an opinion. Water is wet, as noted elsewhere in this forum, and experts disagree. Sometimes vehemently. In some matters, not some much.

    Politics is political and the clever chimpanzee within all of us always knows what he (or she) is doing. Long ago, our founders, and great political thinkers elsewhere concluded that either we do it this way, or someone else does it for us. With the expected results. Someone ought to tell these scientists that everywhere you go, half of all the people are below average for what they are, and usually don’t know any better. Even in the world of the Ivy League.

  • JohnEngelman

    I will direct my question to any American Renaissance poster who dislikes democracy. What do you propose as an alternative? Go into some detail about how the alternative would be organized. 

    •  Military dictatorship that clearly favors dominant racial/ethnic group- like coups in Turkey that quelled Marxist terrorists (Grey wolves) & Kurds.

      This is first step. The second would be slashing of plutocracy’s influences (money people are, as a rule, not  nationally bound) & increasing both patriotic intelligentsia (old WASP type plus others of different European backgrounds, but clearly patriotic- not whiners about their particular ethnic or religious identity) & White working class and farmers and ranchers.

      Middle class is good for stability, but essentially footloose, rootless.

      • JohnEngelman

        When a military coup overthrows a democratic government and creates a military dictatorship, the results are nearly always favorable to the existing plutocracy. The American plutocracy consists primarily of major stock holders and leading business executives. Most of these would like a regressive tax system, a moderately high degree of unemployment, little or nothing in the way of a safety net, no minimum wage laws, more business subsidies, and the suppression of trade union activity. They would also like no restrictions on immigration, because immigration suppresses wage levels. 
        A military dictatorship would probably shut down American Renaissance, and imprison Jared Taylor and his assistants. Those who sign comments with their real name, as I do, would also be in trouble. 

  • America has a sub-triple digit IQ on the whole now, by its racial composition.

    50 million hispanics and 40 million blacks=Idiocracy writ large, homey.

    That is even before you consider all the brainwashed idiot Whites and race traitors, plus half the Whites aren’t exactly Jeopardy and MENSA material.

    After all of those intellectual handicaps you have to throw on top a bunch of competitive retardation like North Versus South and Judeo-Christian garbage as the basis of political electioneering and foreign policy.

    This country is just dumb. Literally dumb.

    • The problem is not in DUMBNESS. The problem is BALL-LESSNESS.

  • My understanding of the “democracy” question and the Founding is that the FFs established a mixed system of democracy (House), aristocracy (Senate) and monarchy (President), because they wanted the best elements from all three while each segment checks their worst elements of the others out of existence.

  • The_Bobster

    The Great Society programs and even Head Start have proven to be abysmal failures. Have they been voted out? We need more sunset laws where programs have to prove they are working. Otherwise, they’re gone.

  • ed

     I think you’re wrong on Korea……..   I have family there.  There is a faction of lala students who demonstrate about american soldiers leaving and they have some valid points…… like black soldier crime and many of all races (american soldiers) can be boorish at times.  But a vast majority of Koreans are well aware of the horror to the North and how we saved them from that and continue to do so………  not to mention the large shadow to the west of Korea called china……..  that will probably not end very well either. 
    but North Korea is unbelievable in the horror show they are living.

  • JohnEngelman

    I wrote “minority persuasions,” not “minorities. Those who wish to expel Americans not of European descent, and those who wish to restrict them to second class citizenship adhere to a minority persuasion. They could only get their way under a dictatorship. A dictatorship in the United States is unlikely to share their agenda. 
    No, I do not only care about white people. I care about those who remind me of myself. The Jews and Orientals I have known as friends remind me of myself more than whites who dislike them because they are not white Gentiles. 

    • loyalwhitebriton

      “I care about those who remind me of myself”

      “The Jews and Orientals I have known as friends…..”

      I think I’ve finally figured you out, John.

      You’re a Japanese Jew!.

    • loyalwhitebriton

      “The Jews and Orientals I have known as friends remind me of myself…”

      “I care about those who remind me of myself”

      I think I’ve finally figured you out, John.

      You’re a Japanese Jew! 😉

  • Animalmind

    The problem is that you hominids think you can define intelligence and that you place so much value upon the individual rather than group IQ. Thinks work out in the aggregate.

  • WhitesRdumb

    DUHmocracy: Allowing imbeciles to choose which idiot will control them.

    The US is not suppose to be a Democracy. It is suppose to be a Constitutional Republic. In a Republic you are given specific rights, and no amount of idiots can vote them away from you.

  • WhitesRdumb

    I met Edward Teller sometime around 1990. He seemed retarded. I doubt he could figure out how to get out of a wet paper bag. I don’t believe all the hype surrounding him, and I don’t think he invented the hydrogen bomb. He might have been put in charge of other scientists, but there is no way he could have done it himself. I have also met numerous other unknown scientists from Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore lab, and they all appeared to be leaps and bounds above old Teller. Teller reminded my of Fidel Castro.

  • WhitesRdumb

    “The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small
    electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through,
    carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the
    field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and
    third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself
    felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most
    devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the
    notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by
    year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office
    represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move
    toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of
    the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House
    will be adorned by a downright moron.”  H.L. Mencken

    “I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and
    in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been
    and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it
    lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts
    long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a
    democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that
    democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or
    less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact,
    and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men,
    under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the
    same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are
    opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy
    gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the
    most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have
    conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
    John Adams, letter to John Taylor (15 April 1814)

  • Competence is Invisible to Those who Have None. ~  I don’t know who said it.

    What do “We” really expect here?  When you offer up your own Country and Way of Life to the Less Able, you Lose what you had.

    Can anyone tell me please, please, why are we being forced to Double Down on Idiocy?  By this I mean, MOST Immigration stems from Third Worlds so why?  Half this Country is Third World now and I dare anyone to tell me different.  Name your Town and I’ll name you a non-white immigrant who lives there.

    • JohnEngelman

      Most Oriental immigrants in the United States behave and perform better than most whites. 

  • MikeofAges

     Don’t forget about the omnipresent security, which is there not to protect you, but to watch you. You can get accosted by gypsies (literal gypsies, not figurative ones) in the parking lot, and there is no one to notify or complain to. But do some little inconsequential thing yourself, maybe just park away from the main gaggle of cars, and you will find someone watching you. Personally, I buy only a few things at Walmart that I just cannot get for a similar price somewhere else, and usually in double quantities so I don’t have to go back there very often. The place is a zoo of lower types of all “persuasions”. In America, the company apparently is very slowly declining, but it is growing outside of the United States. Fine with me. The shareholders won’t lose their shirts and I won’t have to shop there.

  • JohnEngelman

    Non whites who are here legally, and particularly who are American citizens are not going to be deported. Efforts to deport them will deflect energy and credibility away from causes where victory is possible. 

  • JohnEngelman

    From the end of the Second World War to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product declined. It declined under Republican and Democratic presidents, and Republican and Democratic Congresses. It declined during the Korean War and the War in Vietnam.
    This changed when Ronald Reagan and his Voodoo Economists convinced most white voters that it is always a good idea to cut taxes, and never a good idea to raise them, even when defense spending is increasing. 

  • There are certainly a lot of stupid voters (especially the ones who don’t even speak English) but modern party politics makes it almost impossible to cast a rational vote. 

    For example, most mainstream parties have the same policies on crucial issues like immigration. The only choice is between centre left parties with slightly higher tax policies, and centre right parties with slightly lower tax policies.

    Big deal – with the demographic changes being supported by modern governments, we’ll turn into second world countries where corruption is be rampant and most people won’t be paying taxes anyway.

  • If it would be any consolation to Heinlein, I use the quadratic formula for “bang my head against the wall” moments, i.e. if I hit my head hard on something, I’ll spurt out “negative b plus or minus the square root of b-squared minus four-a-c all that over two-a” to make sure my mind is working right.  If I’m ever unable to do that, then I know to call 911.

  • JohnEngelman

    If you think democracy can be easily corrupted, what makes you think that rule by a dictatorship or a plutocracy would not be corrupted? 
    You think an alternative to democracy would agree with you. It is more likely to disagree with you, and to imprison you for disagreeing with it.  

  • JohnEngelman

    If anyone has data compiled by credible sources on how the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 effected the murder rate, and various indicators of the economy, please post it. 
    South Africa has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth and income in the world. 
    I am confident that nearly all the rich people in South Africa are white. A high degree of economic inequality interferes with the healthy functioning of democracy, and contributes to a high crime rate, which South Africa also has.
    The root cause of Detroit’s problems is de industrialization. Computer technology, the North American Free Trade Agreement, similar laws, and the absence of laws that are needed, enable the people who own and run the United States to move manufacturing to countries with lower wages and fewer labor and environmental restrictions. This not only harms most blacks, it harms whites without high IQs and professional degrees from elite colleges and universities.