The Perils of Perception: Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything

A ground-breaking exploration of our misperceptions - informed by several exclusive Ipsos studies over 40 countries. Robert McPhedran, Associate Research Director at Ipsos Public Affairs, discusses why this is a must-read for Singaporeans.

In 2012, Ipsos began a series of quantitative studies on people’s misperceptions of social realities in a joint research programme with King’s College London and the Royal Statistical Society. Six years later, after around one hundred thousand interviews in up to 40 countries, Bobby Duffy, Managing Director at Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute has written a book on how wrong we are, why we are wrong, and what we can do about it.

This unique study examines our misperceptions in all manner of issues; from our estimates of obesity levels, to immigrant numbers, trends in crime and terrorism, how much we need in a pension pot and the sex lives of young people…as well as our misperceptions around Brexit, Trump and Facebook.

At its core, Perils provides insights into why we so often misperceive basic facts about our countries. The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything’ consolidates findings from Perils, unweaving the complex psychological tapestry of social, cognitive and media forces that determine the way we view the world around us.

‘The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything’ is a must read for Singaporeans, as many of the topics it addresses are immensely relevant to the direction that the lion city is heading.

Diabetes is one such example. In 2016, the Singapore Government’s Ministry of Health launched a large-scale, multifaceted War on Diabetes due to the pervasiveness of Type 2 Diabetes1. Since then, there have been numerous diabetes campaigns, policies and initiatives, each of which aims to play a role in disseminating information, improving healthy behaviours and ultimately decreasing the prevalence of this debilitating disease.

With such unwavering attention from the Government and media, one would assume that most Singaporeans would be able to accurately estimate the proportion of the population who suffer from the disease. This is far from being the case. Singaporeans hugely overestimated the prevalence of diabetes, estimating that 35% of the adult population suffer from the disease, a far cry from the actual figure of 11%.

Another example is use of social media. Uptake of technology is a priority area in Singapore, with the Government’s Smart Nation initiative aiming to encourage citizens and businesses alike to leverage infocomm technologies2. Given this national focus, Singapore’s internet penetration is high (83%)3 and usage of mobile phones is similarly commonplace4. In addition to statistics, simple observation suggests that smartphone usage is ubiquitous across the island: anyone who rides the MRT can vouch for this!

With this in mind, it seems reasonable to guess that, as a by-product of this high use of technology, most Singaporeans access social media. This is precisely what most thought. When asked the proportion of the population aged 13 and over who had a Facebook account, Singaporeans estimated 83%, significantly higher than reality (67%)5.

What do these two seemingly dissimilar findings tell us about human psychology? Despite their superficial differences, they both emphasise the way that internal and external forces converge to shape the way we view the world. In the cases mentioned, Governmental focus and media attention ensure that these topics are top-of-mind for most Singaporeans. Such mental salience leads to drastic overestimates of prevalence, in what is commonly referred to in behavioural science as the ‘availability heuristic’6.

The ‘availability heuristic’ is merely one of the many perils of perception discussed in the book. In order to find out more about the factors that cause your misperceptions about Singapore and the world, read ‘The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything’, available now in major bookstores and online.

The Perils of Perception Book Launch

Robert McPhedran is an Associate Research Director at Ipsos. Based in Singapore, Rob has conducted research and consulted for multiple ministries in the public sector in New south Wales, Australia, and Singapore. He holds a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) from UNSW.


  1. The Ministry of Health (2018). Let's Stand Together in the War on Diabetes; accessed 11/9/2018 from
  2. Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (2018).  Many Smart Ideas: One Smart Nation; accessed 11/9/2018 from
  3. As of 2017, 84% of the population used the web; source: IMDA (2018); Infocomm Usage-Households and Individuals; Accessed 11/9/2018 from:
  4. there were 8,464,400 mobile phone subscriptions in Singapore in 2017; source: IMDA (2018); Statistics on Telecom Services for 2017; Accessed 11/9/2018 from
  5. As of 2017, source: Allin1Social (2017); Accessed 11/9/2018 from
  6. Riddle, Karen (2010). Always on My Mind: Exploring How Frequent, Recent, and Vivid Television Portrayals Are Used in the Formation of Social Reality Judgments; Media Psychology; 13 (2): 155–179.