Perceptions are real, right? Not so…it seems, instead, that much of our sense of the society we live in is based on misperceptions which run counter to evidence.
A new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London shows just how wrong public opinion can be on key social issues such as crime, benefit fraud and immigration. See the resultant list of the Top Ten issues where public understanding is most out of touch. From teenage pregnancy to crime levels, benefit fraud, the list goes on…all are issues which we are either underestimating or blowing out of proportion.
To test the perceptions of members of your network(s) on these important issues, take a look at either/or the Datablog and the Telegraph’s Can you spot the truth from the myth? statistics quizzes based on this survey’s findings.
The disconnect between our perceptions and the evidence has obvious implications for informed public debate and poses real challenges for policy makers.
Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society asks “How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence? We need to see three things happen. First, politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise. And finally we need better teaching of statistical literacy in schools, so that people get more comfortable in understanding evidence. Our ‘getstats’ campaign is trying to create change at all of these levels.”.
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s college London has highlighted “the scale of some of these misperceptions on key policy issues. For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration, how much would be saved by different changes to benefits, how much is spent on foreign aid and the real incidence of teenage pregnancy. People also under-estimate “positive” behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more “normal” not to vote than it actually is..”
Importantly, he says: “we need to avoid dismissing public opinion: everyone has a vote, misperceptions have always been with us and they may reflect concerns – that is, people may over-estimate issues because they are worried about them, not the other way round. A lack of trust in government information is also very evident in other questions in the survey – so “myth-busting” is likely to prove a challenge on many of these issues. But it is still useful to understand where people get their facts most wrong.”
The topline research is available here. The research findings were presented and discussed: why do these perception gaps arise? do they matter? if so, what can be done to better align public understanding with the facts? at a packed-out RSS event Perils of Perception, held at Kings College London on 9 July which we filmed and which can be viewed here.