22 Dec 2011


Recently, we had to elect representatives for the medical profession. They would in turn elect the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong. This time, a surprisingly large number of candidates joined the election.

Some candidates were kind enough to visit our hospital and shake hands with us. “Who will you vote for as the Chief Executive?” I asked one candidate on my way to the wards.

The wealthy dermatologist gave a diplomatic answer, “I haven’t decided yet. I will meet each candidate and learn their view on medical care before making the decision.”

I was just making fun of him. Actually, none of the candidates from our sector declared their choice openly. What intrigues me, however, is why they did that. If they clearly indicate their choice, voters with similar inclination can pick them without guessing. It is difficult to imagine they can attract more votes by hiding their choice.

But no, they were not hiding their choice from us. They were hiding it from the future winner.

I should say no more, so let’s get back to science.

In most elections, minority groups would try to push their agenda. These groups often more actively promote their views and persuade others to vote in favor of them. At the same time, many voters know little about the candidates and can be easily persuaded. In a research paper this month, Couzin and colleagues asked an interesting question: What is the role of these ignorant voters during an election? (Science 2011;334:1578)

Contrary to the prediction, the ignorant voters do not fall prey to the manipulation of minority groups. In contrast, according to three different models, the presence of these voters is essential in upholding the preference of the majority. They are more likely to follow the choice of their neighbors, resulting in amplification of the majority vote.

After reading this article, however, I do not know how the findings can be applied to our own election, when nearly all voters were ignorant.

P.S. “X lost,” W announced at lunch. V felt a chill over his spine. He quickly googled the election results on W’s iPhone and gave a sigh of relief. “Good Lord, he lost by more than one vote.”

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