NEWS7 September 2018

The divide between truth and perception

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UK – There is a gap between reality and public perception on issues as far ranging as immigration, Brexit, crime, health and relationships, presenting a serious threat to policy and democracy, according to research from Ipsos Mori.

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Among the findings of a body of research across 40 countries, Ipsos Mori found that the British public believe the murder rate is higher than it was in 2000, when it’s actually down by 29%.

The public also believe that 25% of the population are immigrants, when the reality is 13%. Additionally, we think that there are four times as many Muslims in Britain ( 16% is the estimation, compared with the reality of 5%).

These misconceptions, among others, and the reasons behind them, are the subject of a new book by Bobby Duffy, managing director of the company’s Social Research Institute.

The book draws on research conducted by Ipsos since 2012 on the gap between perception and reality in 40 countries, with findings from around 100,000 interviews.

Speaking at a launch event for the book in London last night ( 6th September), Duffy said: “We are incredibly wrong on lots of different aspects, and that immediately raises the questions of ‘why?’ and ‘what can we do about it?’”

There are a wide set of explanations for the perception gap, Duffy explained. He groups them into two main causes: how we think and what we’re told. Our beliefs about the world are shaped by biases and heuristics, rational ignorance, our maths and statistical skills and level of critical literacy – as well as the influence of media, politics, social media and technology, and our own experience.

Perceptions are also moulded by ‘emotional innumeracy’ – the tendency to remember emotional, vivid narratives, explained Duffy. A prime example is the public’s overestimation of teen births; the research found that respondents believe that one in five ( 19%) teenage girls become pregnant each year, when the figure stands at 1.4%. Stories and narratives are far more memorable than statistics, and human brains tend to have a bias for negative information, according to studies from neuroscientist John Cacioppo which found the brain reacts more strongly to negative than positive images.

Other misconceptions highlighted by the research include beliefs around crime. While the murder rate is down in 25 out of 30 countries studied, only 15% think it’s lower and almost half think it’s gone up from its 2000 level.

This is partly due to the psychological phenomenon of ‘rosy retrospection’ – where people have a disproportionately positive view of the past compared to the present. Highlighted by studies exploring people’s memories of holidays, Duffy explained: “We literally edit out the bad from our past. People tend to edit out the minor niggles and mild disappointments from their holidays and the memory grows fonder as more time passes.”

There are also significant misconceptions around health and wellbeing, with people underestimating the level of obesity – 62% of the British population are overweight or obese, but the average response from the research was 44%. And the myth that vaccinations could cause autism in children, debunked many times over the years, still persists, with six out of 10 respondents across all countries in the study either believing there is a link or that there could be a link.

Duffy also cited one of the study’s Brexit-related findings, around the level of foreign investment in the UK – 50% of which comes from countries in the European Union. The public estimated it at 30%, which lowered to 25% for those who voted to leave the EU.

While public misconception is far from a new problem – Ipsos research dating back to the 1940s suggests we’re as wrong about societal issues now as we were then – fresh challenges are posed by the internet and how information is consumed.

Duffy said: “Our online life threatens our reality now more than ever before. It’s much broader than just information disorder and fake news. It’s our filtering of the content we’re exposed to and unseen algorithms. People love to see what they already think, and tech platforms want us to spend time on them. Confirmation bias is the currency of the tech industry and the internet.”

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, who introduced the event, said the findings highlight the public policy challenges the UK is facing. She said: “As politicians, we follow misconceptions – we don’t challenge them. A classic example is immigration: we have allowed misconceptions about immigration to inform policy for too long. Evidence-based policy should be critical.”

Polly Toynbee, columnist at the Guardian, said: “It’s very easy to feel despair when you look at how successful ‘evidence-free’ politics has been, when you look at Boris and Trump. I think the answer is that politicians have to be bold. It requires politicians to be brave enough – that if the will of the people is wrong – to be brave, stand up and say things aren’t true, and not seek to blame others.”