03/15/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Deliberative Democracy Outreasons Enlightened Dictatorship

A recently published study compared tiny democracies to tiny dictatorships. The democracies, on average, were more rational.

Of course we are all aware of myriad ways democracies fall short of rational ideals. Nevertheless, research in cognitive and social psychology supports the view that democracy, whatever its shortcomings, is the least bad form of government.

The least bad form of democracy, moreover, is deliberative democracy. In fact, deliberative democracy is downright good, not just morally in its treatment of individuals but also socially in its promotion of collective rationality.

The new study, conducted by Petru Lucian Curseu, Rob J. G. Jansen, and Maryse M. H. Chappin of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, is entitled "Decision rules and group rationality" and was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE. It was not intended to address democratic theory but has important implications for understanding the nature and value of democracy.

The study involved a total of 617 college students randomly assigned to 176 groups, which were in turn randomly assigned to two conditions. Each group worked on a set of decision-making tasks. In one condition the groups were instructed to reach a consensus. In the other, one member of the group was randomly appointed the leader and instructed to make the decisions after input from the others.

The groups instructed to reach consensus functioned as small deliberative democracies in which decisions were made through discussion under conditions of intellectual freedom. The groups with appointed leaders functioned as enlightened dictatorships in which the dictator saw the value of getting input from others but then made a final decision.

As predicted based on earlier research, the deliberative democracies achieved, on average, higher levels of rational decision making than the enlightened dictatorships. Getting input from multiple sources is good, but not as good as free discussion among all concerned.

These results are consistent with extensive previous evidence showing that groups often achieve higher levels of rationality than their average member. But groups do not always perform better than individuals. Central to the rationality of groups is intellectual freedom within the group.

Under conditions of intellectual freedom, in fact, groups sometimes function more rationally than their best member. In a study entitled "Collaborative Reasoning" that I conducted with Molly Geil, 20 groups of 5 or 6 college students each were instructed to discuss a notoriously difficult reasoning task and reach consensus on an answer. Meanwhile 32 of their classmates selected a response individually.

Remarkably, although only 3 of the 32 students working individually selected the correct response, 15 of the 20 groups did so. This included three groups that solved the task despite the fact that every member initially made a wrong selection. Collaborative reasoning under conditions of intellectual freedom sometimes allows groups to achieve levels of rationality beyond that of their most rational member.

Democracy is commonly conceived as majority rule. We each vote for what we prefer, and the majority prevail. If we can't all get our way, at least we all get to vote, and most of us do get our way.

Deliberative democracy is a form of democracy that requires active discussion under conditions of intellectual freedom for all. In the end we may have to vote, but only after a serious effort to reach consensus.

Deliberative democracy is democracy in its strongest and must justifiable form. A focus on deliberative democracy reminds us that full democracy is not just majority rule, with everyone having equal right to vote. The democratic ideal is the achievement of social consensus through free and active deliberation, with everyone having equal right to fully participate.

The new group rationality study from the Netherlands provides further support for a deliberative conception of democracy. Free speech, we see once again, is not just of value to the individual who exercises it. It also serves the group by promoting rational decision-making. Intellectual freedom, then, is not just a matter of individual rights. It also serves group rationality.