We have had a couple of questions that discussed both the pros/cons of direct democracy in theory, as well as whether it was ever implemented in actual polity.

But these are not necessarily very illuminative - the former is just that, theory. Which is rarely correct when applied to live, breathing apes. And the latter is very likely to be affected by small sample size issue - the details of implementation and details of polity may very well affect the outcomes, due to how little direct democracy has been tried.

So, what I would like to know, is whether direct democracy has ever been studied in a lab - more specifically, in a large, controlled study by professional political science researchers, with control groups having other forms of governance like representative democracy? If so, what were the observed outcomes and how closely do they track the predictions from theories?

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    Can you define "work"?
    – David Rice
    Aug 2, 2018 at 13:43
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    Would you consider studies on New England Colonial Direct Democracy
    – user9790
    Aug 2, 2018 at 13:58
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    Switzerland has a decent amount of direct democracy in their representative system(essentially, they can call referendums on allowing/denying laws made by elected representatives). There are likely studies about that system's pros/cons, but it might not be 'controlled' enough since there isn't a second Switzerland lying around to compare it to.
    – Giter
    Aug 2, 2018 at 14:12
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    I'm also a little confused by this question. Direct democracy is seen as great for small groups and small numbers of problems, but ineffective as a form of government for a large complex nation state. Is this questioning the idea that direct democracy works in small scale, or asking how to test it's effectiveness with hundreds of thousands of people and lots of complexity in a lab?
    – lazarusL
    Aug 2, 2018 at 14:17
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    @DavidRice - Hard to say. I'd accept any reasonable definition that study authors posited. A likely approach is to take some theoretical pros/cons/crtiticisms of the concept; and seeing if they apply in actual lab experiment
    – user4012
    Aug 2, 2018 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


Actually, contrary to my pessimistic expectation, some studies exist, e.g."Direct Democracy and Resource Allocation: Experimental Evidence from Afghanistan":

Direct democracy is designed to better align policy outcomes with citizen preferences. To test this proposition, we randomized whether 250 villages across Afghanistan selected projects by secret-ballot referenda or by consultation meetings. We find that referenda reduce the influence of local elites over both project type and location. Consistent with previous experimental results, we also find that referenda improve villagers’ perceptions of the local economy and of the quality of local governance. However, we find no systematic evidence that selecting projects via referenda increases the average impact of such projects

(Let me look at their related-work section to see what else is there.) One other similar study they mention:

Using experimental variations similar to those employed in this study, Olken (2010) finds a strong positive effect of the use of direct democracy in Indonesia on villagers’ satisfaction, but no effect on the choice of the general project itself, other than a relocation effect of women’s projects towards poorer areas.

The paper also cites a fairly cited (elsewere) work: Matsuska, J. (2005), “Direct Democracy Works,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(2), 185-206. but this paper turns out to be mostly a historical & observational (rather than experimental) account. It does have some theoretical & empirical observations which pertain to your (farily open) question though:

Of course, the bottom line is whether direct democracy makes government better or worse. This question may not have an objective answer since whether a policy is good or bad so often is in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, some research has attempted to assess the quality of direct democracy policymaking in terms of efficiency, utility and other concepts that economists traditionally use to evaluate outcomes.

There's 5 pages following that reviewing various works, which is too much to cover here.


If the small groups that makes decisions by voting would qualify, then such groups are abundant. Referees vote to give a score for a player, parlamentars vote to make decisions about the country. To go further, simple electronic devices can vote which of the three computers malfunction, and ECC computer memory cells vote to decide which value has been stored into memory. If all this does not qualify, which kind of studies are desired here? It is not possible to build artificial model of society from Drosophila flies in test tube and explore direct democracy over something else that way.

Switzerland has long traditions of direct democracy: referendums are easy to achieve, many important questions are solved through them and all citizens can vote. It is, I would say, a rather successful country hence there is no obvious reason to believe democracy does not work.

The traditions here are so deep that I have seen few times a group of children first discussing and then voting on something that is important for a group, like where to go today.

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    You mean, in laboratory, on lab rats? No, direct democracy cannot be researched with rats. Which kind of study it could possibly be?
    – Stančikas
    Aug 3, 2018 at 4:49
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    @h22 they probably just want to punish people for mentioning Switzerland. It's way too successful. Aug 3, 2018 at 7:35
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    They handed out a Nobel prize for an economist studying, in a lab (albeit one that looked a lot like a class room), human economic behavior. As a minimum requirement, there should be a paper written on the results. And what you describe is normal children's behavior. It is not unique to Switzerland. I'm not even convinced that it is unique to countries with democracy.
    – Brythan
    Aug 3, 2018 at 8:28

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