In a few days, Egyptians are going to polling stations to choose their president for the first time ever in their long history. Previously, almost every ruler we ever had in 10,000 years was “chosen” on our behalf by some outside force or by an act of “fate” such as being appointed the Vice President for a life-long president who happened to be shot dead shortly after.
Naturally, everyone is both very excited and also very apprehensive. The previous regime, as we have discovered, is still firmly in place, and even bold enough to elect two of its members for candidacy. The revolutionary groups are busy competing with each other and vying for public support. The logical question is: are the Egyptians ready to practice democracy? Are they equipped to choose the “right” president, or will their over-excitement and inexperience work against them? I have had to answer this question repeatedly from high profile international politicians I met in my trips to talk about the Egyptian revolution, most recently at the Swedish Royal Palace.
I’m not a politician, I’m into human behavior, and so I looked for the answer in a fascinating experiment of Francis Galton, a 19th century British scientist who believed that only a few people had the required abilities to keep a society healthy. He had little faith in the intelligence of the average person, and his career was dedicated to proving that the vast majority of people were not equipped to lead or make educated choices. According to Galton, society could prosper only if power and control stayed in the hands of the very select few.
In 1906, he observed a competition at a livestock county fair in a small town in England. The onlookers were appraising a live ox, and trying to guess its expected weight after slaughter and dressing. The crowd included a mixture of expert butchers, cattle traders, and average people.
Galton thought of an analogy to democracy, of when the votes of average people of very different abilities decided the fate of an issue or a candidate. He wrote: “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits on most political issues on which he voted.”
Of course by that he meant to prove that the “average voter” was incapable of making a correct choice. So he logged the guesses of all the competitors to form a bell curve. Then he calculated the mean of the group’s guesses, so that, if the group were one person, that number would be his guess of the ox’s weight.
He probably expected the group’s guess to be totally wrong, because after all, if you mix a few very smart people with some average ones and a lot of dumb people, then the collective answer would probably be a dumb one.
But Galton was wrong. The crowd had guessed that the ox after slaughter and dressing would weigh 1,197 pounds, and the actual weight was found to be 1,198. The crowd’s guess was perfect.
This incredible resource of power and knowledge is one we’ve used repeatedly since the revolution that took place in Egypt in January 2011. During the 18 days in Tahrir Square, I was amazed to see simple Egyptians, who hardly had any education, proving that crowds can be much smarter than the smartest people in them. They had great awareness and self-motivation. They took risks, created solutions, inspired others, and made massive change happen, without even realizing how good they were at those modern skills.
During the revolution, when masses of average people were free and in charge, they did not revert to their primitive selves to become looters and hooligans, instead, they applied their values and created a utopia we all enjoyed for 18 days. Some of the civilized behaviors we experienced there were not practiced by the average people prior to the revolution. The Tahrir crowd was indeed much smarter and more civilized than any one of us alone, and the effect has outlived the 18 days.
After removing the dictator, volunteer citizens did the policing, trash collecting, and traffic organizing, and suddenly life ran as efficiently as it should in a modern state. Except, there was no state. The people were the state!
The new sense of ownership had sparked people’s involvement and participation, when most of them had never before practiced or experienced such skills.
If this has happened spontaneously during a time of unrest, in a struggling country of 85 million people, half of them illiterate, then it can certainly happen again when most of those citizens are focused on creating a better future through democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Egyptians’ awareness of their rights, and eagerness to put them to into practice are already huge achievements in just one year. The only way of refining choice is through continuous practice in free and democratic elections. Even Galton, after finding out the astonishing results of his experiment wrote: “The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.”