Majority Rule and Minority Rights

Wendy Wu ’22

Figure 1: With increasing scrutiny on governmental actions, people begin to question the merits and limits of majority rule. 

Humans are social animals; it is in our nature to communicate and to cooperate. We live with the understanding that we not only act in our individual interests, but also in the interests of the community. The problem is that not all members of the group will benefit from community decisions all the time. How, then, should we make collective decisions? Many societies believe in the fairness and efficiency of voting, or majority rule. History, however, clearly shows that the majority can make decisions that harm the minority. Peter DeScioli, a Political Science Professor at Stony Brook University, aimed to study the psychology of majority-rule voting across cultures and whether people will consider a different method of decision-making in the presence of a vulnerable minority. 

Six hundred ninety participants were gathered from five countries: Denmark, India, Russia, Hungary, and the USA. They were given three scenarios in which a small group must make a collective decision even though not all members are in agreement. These scenarios were non-political and focused more on everyday life such as where to eat for dinner. This was done because politics varies across cultures, and researchers hoped to assess the root of the participants’ feelings on majority rule. In each scenario, the minority had more at stake than the majority. Participants were asked to choose between voting, consensus agreement, appointing a leader, or relying on chance for each scenario. Survey results found that participants supported voting more if they were from established democratic countries. Researchers also found that in all countries, participants were much less likely to choose voting and more likely to choose consensus if a vulnerable minority was at risk in the scenario. 

The participants showed a sensitive consideration of the vulnerable minority. Generally, people favor voting as the best way to resolve conflicts of interest. But when voting causes a small group to be disadvantaged, people will tend to rely on consensus agreement instead. This reveals that in our everyday lives, we believe the right thing to do is to protect the minority. Does this trend apply in politics? The results of this research are limited to impersonal scenarios; the participants had nothing to gain or lose. Further developments of the experimental procedure should include political scenarios or give the participants’ a stake in the outcome, thus providing great insight into when voting is appropriate and when it is not. 

Works Cited: 

[1] A. Bor, et al., When should the majority rule? Experimental evidence for Madisonian judgements in five cultures. Journal of Experimental Political Science, (2020). doi:

[2] Image retrieved from:


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