Cognitive Democracy

In “Cognitive Democracy”, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi outline a cognitive approach to democracy. They argue that democracy is a better way to solve complex social problems than markets or hierarchies, and they look forward to the possibilities that information and communication technologies offer to improve collective decision-making:

We argue that democracy has unique benefits as a form of collective problem solving in that it potentially allows people with highly diverse perspectives to come together in order collectively to solve problems. Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy. Furthermore, democracy can, by experimenting, take advantage of novel forms of collective cognition that are facilitated by new media.

What follows is a brief excerpt of the essay which you can read complete here and here. You’ll need to read the paper and the bibliography if you want to understand the evidence and support for the different viewpoints presented here.

In their essay Farrel and Shalizi compare three broad macro-institutions: politics, markets and hierarchies, trying to answer how useful they are in helping us to solve difficult social problems. Solving a complex problem can be understood as a search across a rugged landscape for the best solution. Individual agents have limited cognitive abilities and usually limited knowledge of the landscape. Hence they are likely to get stuck at local optima, which may be much worse than even other local peaks, let alone the global optimum.

Farrel and Shalizi argue that intellectual diversity is crucial to identifying good solutions to complex problems. Smart individuals have better landscape representations than less smart individuals, and are less likely to get trapped at inferior local optima. Yet, groups with high diversity of internal viewpoints are even better able to identify optima than groups composed of much smarter individuals with more homogenous viewpoints.

Many scholars and public intellectuals believe that markets or hierarchies provide better ways to solve complex problems than democracy. Following Friedrich Hayek, advocates of markets argue that market based forms of organization do a better job at eliciting information and putting it to good work than does collective organization. The virtue of the price system is to compress diffuse, even tacit, knowledge about specific changes in specific circumstances into a single index. However, although information about relative scarcity surely helps markets approach some kind of balance, it is little help in solving more complicated social problems, which may depend not on allocating existing stocks of goods in a useful way, given people’s dispersed local knowledge, so much as discovering new goods or new forms of allocation. The market facilitates and fosters asymmetries of wealth which in turn may be directly or indirectly translated into asymmetries of political influence.

Does hierarchy do better? States with clear, accountable hierarchies can achieve vast and intricate projects, and businesses use hierarchies to coordinate highly complex chains of production and distribution. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have recently made a sophisticated case for the benefits of hierarchy, in which it is arguably the first real effort to analyse how social institutions work as information-processors. However, Thaler and Sunstein depict citizens as passive consumers, who need to be guided to the desired outcomes, rather than active participants in democratic decision-making. Their proposals don’t take advantage of diversity, and cultural homogeneity among hierarchical elites helps create policy disasters (the “best and brightest” problem)

Harnessing the benefits of diversity means ensuring that agents with a very wide range of viewpoints have the opportunity to express their views and to influence collective choice. Inequalities of power notoriously dampen real exchanges of viewpoints. Hierarchical inferiors within organizations worry about contradicting their bosses. Therefore unequal societies will select only over a much smaller range of viewpoints –those of powerful people.

If power asymmetries inhibit problem-solving, democracy has a large advantage over both markets and technocratic hierarchy. Democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies

The rise of the Internet makes this an especially propitious time for experimenting with democratic structures themselves. Communication and information-processing are obviously going to change the possibilities for collective decision-making. We do not yet know the possibilities of Internet-mediated communication for gathering dispersed knowledge, for generating new knowledge, for complex problem-solving, or for collective decision-making, but we really ought to find out.


Featured Image by Cognition Kids


  1. Interesting article. I need to read the quoted article, but I wonder what type of democratic model they are suggesting has such cognitive benefits… The main point at the end seems to stand in as an idealised form of greater popular participation in politics and economics, which is all very well, but harder to put into practice (although, as you mention, the internet is a game-changer in that regard).

    Still, the comparison with more hierarchical states makes sense in the long run, but the rapid advances in technology and economy of a country like China provide food for thought by presenting a different model of democracy (at least in Chinese opinion) that incorporates greater inequalities of power. I would imagine that these inequalities must be offset somehow so as to not suffer from the reduced problem-solving capacity you mention, possibly by having such a high level of political participation on the local government level.

    • More than a specific proposal for a democratic model or evolution of the current democratic model, the quoted article is a broad reflection on how best manage complex problems, in particular complex social ones. And yes, it contains that beautiful explanation on the value of diversity and how power can restrict intellectual diversity, therefore limiting the benefits of the “wisdom of the crowd”. Worth reading if you have the time! Thank you very much for your comment.

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