The Loh Down On Science

Minnow Electoral College

Win elections by apathy?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Meet Princeton biologist Iain Couzin. He studies social animals--like schooling fish--and applies mathematical models to understand their behavior.

Herds are largely predictable: Majority rules! Unless a loudly opinionated minority captures everyone's attention.

Couzin wondered: What if a second minority, of indifferent members, comes along?

To find out, he trained golden shiner minnows--which swim toward light for food.

He taught a majority to swim toward blue light, and a minority to swim toward yellow.

Golden shiners naturally prefer yellow light, so the minority liked their color more--simulating the effect of an opinionated minority.

With both types together, the yellow-light minority convinced everyone to swim their direction.

Then Couzin introduced untrained shiners, with no light preference--and their "Meh, we'll do what most of you want" let the blue-light majority regain control.

It shows apolitical participants can counterbalance a powerful minority, Couzin says.

So politicians: to win? Court the minnow-ity vote!



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