We don’t know the basic makeup of the countries we live in. In fact, we are wrong on most key social issues, according to a fascinating recent Ipsos MORI’s global survey.
This study shows how wrong the public across 14 very different countries (including UK, Australia, Sweden, Japan, US, France and South Korea) are about key population characteristics and social issues. Generally, we tend to overestimate what we see as problems or differences (unemployment, murder rate, immigration) and underestimate the familiar or what we assume is the norm (voting, Christians).
And we are not just a bit off – we are massively wrong.
In the UK for example:
• We hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims: we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty).
• • We think that a quarter of the population are immigrants (24%), while the real figure is nearly half (13%).
• We believe that the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.
• And we think that one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%.
• In contrast, we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.
• We think 39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.
The big questions for me are: what is the impact of this huge gap between reality and perceptions and how do we get things so wrong?
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said: “These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making. For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers. 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.”
As to why we get things so wrong, I blame the media. Although (or beacuse?) I am a journalist, I believe the media is largely responsible for reflecting distorted images of our societies. For example, a relentless diet of Daily Mail’ stories about ‘waves’ and ‘hordes’ of immigrants ‘flooding’, ‘invading’ British towns and villages must influence our perception on immigration.
Although the researchers didn’t generally ask respondents how they formed their views, they did ask the people who answered more than double the actual level for the immigration question how they formed their perceptions.
And surprisingly, the media (TV and newspapers) were far from their main reason. Rather, they said they based their immigration views on what they saw in their local areas and when they visited other cities. And because they believed people come into the country illegally, so aren’t counted.
And now I wonder, how do people know who is an immigrant? By the colour of their skin, the way they dress, the way they speak, behave? And that’s another big question…