People who think there is only one correct answer to a question are more apt to coordinate, but that advantage can come at the expense of a diversity of opinions, according to new Cornell research into the influence of crowds on moral reasoning.
In a series of mathematical simulations, Shaun Nichols, professor and director of cognitive science at the Sage School of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences, and his co-authors compared the behavior of universalists, who believe in a single truth and are more likely to conform to a majority opinion, and relativists, who see multiple potential answers and are reluctant to change their point of view.
These dynamics, they found, dramatically affect a population’s ability to rally around a common goal – and potentially foster inequalities and eliminate diversity in the process.
“Being a universalist allows you to better coordinate solutions to problems, and that’s often important,” Nichols said. “But being a universalist also makes you more likely to dismiss minority views as wrong, and that’s often wrong.”
Nichols is co-author of “The Meta-Wisdom of Crowds,” published July 3 in the journal Synthese, with philosophers Justin Sytsma, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, and Ryan Muldoon, University of Buffalo.
Coordination – defined as people deciding to do the same thing – has posed a challenge throughout human history, Nichols said, and is at times critical. Consider which side of the road to drive: left or right, everyone has to agree on one side. Host language and customs are additional contexts in which achieving a unique response is beneficial.
This happens much faster among universalists, who rely more on the wisdom of crowds, scholars demonstrated in coordination games that varied crowd makeup and thresholds for adopting consensual beliefs. The populations of die-hard relativists, on the other hand, sometimes never manage to coordinate.
“There is a big advantage in being a universalist in conditions where coordination is important,” Nichols said.
In some contexts, however, coordination is unnecessary and may even be undesirable, the researchers argue. For example, if a minority did not like a popular style of music, relativists would not view it as a mistake but would accept that people have different musical tastes. Universalist pressure to conform to an aesthetic truth could be problematic.
“It would be mind-numbing if everyone thought there is only one right way to make music or write literature,” Nichols said.
Crowds inclined to believe in only one right answer can also exacerbate inequalities, the research has found. This concern was illustrated by a simulation with an “unequal coordination game”, involving a scenario in which coordination is important for both parties, but no outcome is optimal for both parties: a pair of friends who can attending a gallery or concert together, each with a different preference.
“If you’re a universalist in these games,” Nichols said, “you can stiffen these inequalities and institutionalize an unfair arrangement.”
Examples of detrimental coordination include a dinner where everyone brings a main course, or diners all converging on the same restaurant at the same time. In these cases, the authors suggest, people would be better off doing different things, using a variety of beliefs adopted by relativists.
Relativists, Nichols said, do not assume that others who make different judgments are wrong, “so the minority is not at a disadvantage for having minority beliefs.”
The researchers said the research as a whole presents a more nuanced understanding of the value of universalism, challenging the “problematic assumption” that coordination is an unadulterated good. Beyond social norms, they write, morality can be seen as an area in which broad agreement is important, “but moral progress is only possible when there is room for people to have minority opinions “.
In future research, they plan to explore whether people can learn when to act like a universalist or a relativist, when to coordinate or go their own way.
“The next step is to figure out how people can determine when they are in a situation where they should think there is only one truth,” Nichols said, “and when they should be thinking, ‘Leave a thousand flowers bloom ”.