current affairs media politics

Public perception vs the facts

There’s a pretty shocking survey out this week from the Royal Statistical Society. It explores the difference between reality and public opinion on several key social issues. There is in many cases a gaping chasm between the two. The RSS has compiled a top ten, and here are a few of them:

  • Crime: I’ve written about this one before, but 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows a 19% fall between 2006 and 2012. 51% think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012.
  • Unemployment benefits: 29% of people think we spend more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).
  • Benefit fraud: The public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100. The public’s estimate is 34 times the actual figure.
  • Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions,(which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).
  • Immigration: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11%.

These misperceptions matter. If you think foreign aid is too high, you’ll argue that it should be stopped. You’ll tolerate arbitrary cuts to benefits if you think many of them are being claimed unfairly. And you’ll join UKIP if you are labouring under the false impression that a third of the country wasn’t born here.

The danger of course is that it’s far easier for politicians to play to the perceptions rather than the reality. Deal with facts, and the public is all of a sudden not on your side. The result is populist policies that pander to falsehoods, and a political culture that is ultimately based on lies.

The same goes for the media. You’ll sell more papers by telling people things they like to hear. Propagating these false perceptions reinforces our prejudices.Without wanting to name any names, legitimising their readers’ bigotry seems to be the raison d’etre of some of Britain’s papers.


The executive director of the RSS, Hetan Shah, sums up the challenge well: “We need to see three things happen. Firstly, 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.”


  1. Maybe I’m being wise after the fact, but I didn’t find these findings surprising. I think there have been clues from surveys in the recent past, though I can’t provide references.

    More significantly – especially for me, as I agree with most of what you post and find your blog really wise – I don’t think these findings are shocking. I blogged about it here: In summary: these findings make sense due to behavioural effects of which we have a decent understanding, in particular confirmation bias and availability bias. Group co-operation and the free-rider effect are part of it too, linked to our instinctive loss aversion.

    So I disagree with the RSS’s interpretation. We’ve tried throwing information at people to try and persuade them. It doesn’t really work. “If only people were better informed, …”. Hmmm. I suggest that developing a broader, deeper understanding of what we’re like as a species would be more helpful.

    1. Yes, I’ve come across many of these individually. It’s the list of all of them together that hit me. And you’re right about the availability bias and so on – but then perhaps part of the education side of things is to teach these common traps too.

      The problem is, if we’re not attempting to inform and educate people, what’s the alternative? Shrugging our shoulders at this means we’re either going to have a disfunctional democracy or no democracy at all – technocracy perhaps. So it throws open a whole bunch of questions to which there are no easy answers.

      Still, you’ve thought about this more than I have, as I can tell from your post. I’m open to new lines of thinking on this one.

  2. The inaccurate perception is remarkably persistent as well; I saw this covered on a news website and the comments section was full off comments from people not believing the census figures.
    Real examples: “Who came up with the original statistics and why should we believe either. ” – despite the article linking to a list of sources showing that most are the census.
    “Thirteen per cent of people in the UK are immigrants, and black and Asian people make up 11 per cent of the population…so why has my local town got a population of over 50% asian? ” – from some-one in Manchester who also believed her council said over 50% of the population were retired.
    “Absolute rubbish, the media duping us again! Sheeple believe this trite. I live in Surrey and every job application I receive is from someone whose ‘first language is not English'” – so must believe applications he receives are more representative of the country as a whole than the census.
    “Just under half of all our youth is muslim.” – from some-one who repeated this “fact” three times, and linked to a source showing that less than 8% of under 25s are Muslim, but that 48% of Muslims are under 25.

    1. That’ll be the availability bias Warren mentions, and very familiar. It’s kind of obvious really, that we would extrapolate our own observations about our own environment to the whole country.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I may have thought about this a bit, but answers have I only sketchy ones … I do think that we now have enough knowledge of our instinctive biases that, yes, we should be learning about what we’re really like, so that we learn from an early age that we’re not as in control of our actions as we like to think we are, and that our nature has been shaped by our evolution as a species in an environment far removed from the one we live in now. In the long-term, this leads to what I think the RSA (and no doubt others) would call more ‘mindful’ decision making. I would like my grandchildren to leave school aware of the risks of confirmation bias and therefore able to form opinions more mindfully.

    Shorter-term, I have started to wonder whether we could build an evidence-based guide to framing discussion, in a way that leads opinion to most closely reflect ‘true’ data. This could become a pledge for opinion shapers (media, politicians, etc), perhaps with a similar model to, recent brainchild of I can see that this would run the risk of looking a bit left/liberal (when I see it as universal) because all the examples of poor policy making arising from the misperceptions reported by MORI are populist or from the right. So, a blogger backing the benefits cap with an atypical anecdote could be called out for breaking the ‘framing code’; whereas, at the moment, all we do is tell them they’re wrong (“oh, no, I’m not!”, “oh, yes, you are!”, etc). This may seem a bit far fetched right now, but I stand by my contention that helping people learn about themselves is a good alternative to continuing in the vain hope that moderate, informed people can persuade others to see the bigger picture.

    So, might I be on to something? Or am I now myself occupying ‘hopeless idealist’ territory?

    1. You’re right that, one way or another, we need to move beyond telling people they’re wrong. As Nickoli mentions above, people don’t believe the facts when they’re told them, so we clearly need to start somewhere else.

      Unfortunately, agreeing some discussion standards is only ever going to work with those prepared to engage in a process discussion first. That’s fine for academics or a formal discussion setting, but not for general everyday use.

      I see that some internet forums have a form of this though. There are discussion standards, and moderators will flag ‘banned’ modes of argument (ad hominem attacks, for example). Some of the more thoughtful climate change websites do this, and since the standards are there for all commenters to see, it’s quite legitimate to screen out those that won’t maintain them.

      In culture generally, I don’t think there’s any substitute for schooling ourselves better in thinking techniques. I went to a good school and got all the way through university without ever looking at critical thinking skills. Many of them were implicit, but there would be real value in looking at how we learn and know, as well as what we know.

    2. The list isn’t all left/liberal. The full list includes questions on numbers who vote and national average age (Though the majority of questions in the survey are, it would have been interesting to had some abbout amount of tax paid by top earners etc). Also missed out of the coverage are the facts the public are right about national debt rising and the decline of MRSA. The list here reflects the RSS preoccupations filtered through Jermey’s preferences and so is a nice illustration why we get unbalanced and incorrect public perceptions. It isn’t just the Express that misleads.

      1. Key difference: this is a personal blog. I write about what interests me and don’t claim any different. The Express is ostensibly a newspaper.

        1. Why should a newspaper be balanced and a personal blog not? People choose to read either, both or neither.

  4. Trouble is, those who are informed are resistant to new information that challenges their preconceptions, so the ill-informed are actually more open minded.

    1. I’m not sure that holds. New information challenges your view of the world whether it is based in fact or not. And if you can read and understand statistics, which is what the RSS is on about here, then you can read and digest new statistics.

        1. Interesting paper, although it is talking about ideology rather than statistics. It’s very hard to change someone’s overarching belief system, but that’s quite different from understanding the facts of the world around us.

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