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NEWS14 March 2019

How to tackle misconceptions: understand bias, build narratives from evidence and deliberate

Brexit Impact 2019 Media News Technology Trends UK

UK – Researchers should acknowledge their own biases and preferences and remember that they are not representative of the population at large, according to a panel at the Market Research Society’s Impact conference.

“There is something innate in humans in how we misperceive things,” said Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and author of The Perils of Perception, a book based on his research highlighting the extent of the gap between perception and reality on issues from teenage pregnancy to immigration.

Duffy kicked off yesterday’s session by outlining the main findings of the global study by Ipsos Mori – namely, that as humans, we are often very wrong about things and usually think things are worse than they are. The research found that the public misjudged the level of teenage pregnancy in Britain by 18 percentage points, for example, while the majority of respondents also perceived the murder rate to be higher than it actually is.

This is down to evolution, Duffy argued. “It’s evolutionary; in cave people days, negative information was more important. If you didn’t react to negative threats, you were edited out of the gene pool.” Not only do our brains tend to have a bias for negative information, but they also edit out the negatives from the past, often giving us a nostalgic or rosy view of what has gone before.

Also speaking during the panel session was Andrew Tenzer, director of group insight at Reach. Tenzer recently commissioned research that highlighted the difference in ‘thinking styles’ between individuals working in the media industry and the general public. He said: “We’re dealing in a very competitive environment where 84% of people working in the advertising industry are under 40 and they often put their own behaviours on to other people. Just because you spend three hours a day on Snapchat, it doesn’t mean the average person is. We, as supposed experts in our field, are often wrong and we need to be aware of that.”

Jan Gooding, chair of Stonewall, said one of the organisation’s core strategies is to have an “entirely evidence-based approach to campaigning”. She said: “When Stonewall was formed, you could have said [it should use] the human rights argument – and of course that’s an important argument, but what was more powerful was the willingness to do research on people’s experiences and tracking things like homophobic bullying in schools.”

By using evidence to inform strategy, companies can also become more inclusive places, she added. Citing an example from her time at Aviva, where she was global inclusion director, Gooding said the company wanted to understand how many of its employees were trans, which resulted in two outcomes. Firstly, the HR department realised there were more trans employees than they thought, so they introduced gender neutral bathrooms, and secondly, more people felt that they could come forward – in the first survey, 52 out of 16,000 employees said they were trans, and the following year the figure had doubled.

Gooding said: “There is something important in putting out facts and then using anecdotes to bring it to life. What I find disappointing is when a single anecdote becomes fact.”

Discussing the ways in which facts and emotions are interpreted differently, Duffy said people are not as opposed to facts as popular narrative would suggest. “You can either have facts or stories and the pendulum has swung towards stories. But humans are not as much in opposition to facts as has been set up.”

Though misperceiving the world is clearly not a new phenomenon, it takes on new relevance in a fragmented media landscape and climate of misinformation and fake news. Discussing how misconceptions can be addressed, David Halpern, chief executive of The Behavioural Insights Team, said: “You can give people some reflection back using social proof, such as ‘nine out of 10 people in your area pay their tax on time’ – the rate goes up.”

He also mentioned the increasingly important role of fact-checkers. “Fact-checkers could leave a veracity index where you could track the accuracy of stories. On the BBC you could have ‘most likely to be true’ as well as ‘most read’ – or an AI-based ranking that fact-checks in real time,” said Halpern.

While it’s impossible to stop someone’s initial system one response to something, you can encourage system two to kick in, and Duffy believes this is where researchers – and policymakers – should focus their efforts. “I think that’s where we’ve got to look at convincing people – getting people to deliberate rather than telling them stuff. When people come into those discussions, they amend their views over time.”

While this approach doesn’t solve all problems and people will still have their own world views, “they will listen far more than the Twitter ‘two tribes’ ideology would have you think. People are pliable and open to new ideas and do change over time – we are not entirely wedded to one view on any of these subjects.”

He added: “Deliberative elements to democracy have been sorely lacking in Brexit.”

Gooding concluded by offering some advice for businesses: “Whatever your view is, imagine you’re completely wrong and test it on that basis. I make sure I always have someone around me who I don’t agree with and find annoying. There’s something about building contrariness into your systems.”

Duffy added: “From a research point of view, don’t think you’re normal. From a lay person’s point of view, things are definitely better than you think.” 

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