NEWS2 September 2015

Britons ‘overestimate the bad behaviours of other people’

Behavioural economics News UK

UK — A new survey from Ipsos MORI and the Behavioural Insights Team show that we think more people are avoiding tax and eating over the recommended amount of sugar than is the case.


Britons also apparently massively underestimate how much exercise they do and the extent to which they are saving for retirement. People in all countries surveyed (UK, US, Canada, Australia, France and Germany) also reportedly believe that other people are throwing more sickies than they will admit to.

More specifically, the British public think that:

  • 69% of their fellow Brits eat more than the recommended amount of sugar, while nutrition surveys show it’s only 47%
  • 65% of the population are not saving enough for retirement, when government studies suggest it’s actually 43%
  • 36% of the population have avoided paying the full amount of tax on income or purchases in the past year, when only 6% admit to it themselves
  • only 42% of their countrymen do the recommended amount of exercise each week, when detailed surveys of physical activity show that 57% do

The survey, of over 6,000 people aged 18-64, showed that people in all countries surveyed were more likely to ascribe undesirable behaviours to their fellow countrymen than they were prepared to admit to themselves.

“Findings from behavioural science show us that people are strongly influenced by what they think their fellow citizens are doing,” said David Halpern, CEO of the Behavioural Insights Team.

“The Behavioural Insights Team, for example, has shown that people are more likely to pay their tax when they are reminded of the truth – that most people pay their tax on time. So this survey has important implications. We underestimate how virtuous our fellow citizens are, and this really matters. If we think others are cheating, not saving enough, or not eating healthily, then we’re much more inclined to do the same ourselves. Our perception of others’ behaviours is often way out of line with reality, and this has consequences for what we ourselves do.”



6 years ago

Surely this is really about the difference in responses to surveys, depending on how the question is framed? I'm not convinced either survey is 'correct' as (from what I can gather from the article) they're all based on stated/claimed behaviour which we know is fundamentally flawed. I'd be interested to know whether the nutrition surveys referenced above as 'correct' are any closer to the reality. Rather than surveying, looking at the contents of someone's food/drink intake via ethnography/diary/investigating the contents of their fridges etc. is likely to be more a more accurate reflection of true sugar intake than a survey. Especially when it's something as abstract as 'too much sugar'. Most people have no idea how much sugar is in something sugary like a fizzy drink, never mind hidden sugars there are in things like low fat yoghurts. And even if they do, they might not report it - there's surely some social desirability in claiming you don't eat more sugar than you should do. And therefore surely it's easier to deflect that behaviour onto someone else (who you know does that, but of course, you're super-healthy and not so dumb as to eat too much sugar), hence the results. There's been a lot of research about how we're better at predicting and reporting on the behaviour of others than we are our own, and on the benefits of triangulating different data sources to find unpick and moderate quant findings. My conclusion from this article is that I just don't believe that 6/10 people do the recommended amount of exercise and that only half eat over the recommended amount of sugar and I would suggest the predicted figures are probably closer to the reality. I agree that our perceptions of what others are doing have a big impact on us, but fundamentally, I'm not convinced either survey is actually 'right', they're just different (and flawed) ways of measuring something. And I know which I think's more likely to be true (although I'd probably do some diary/ethno work to test my hypotheses) :)

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6 years ago

Agree with Karen. Just wanted to put it out there...

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