Hearts and Minds: misperceptions and the military

Ipsos MORI and King's College London are releasing a new international survey that highlights what the public in Britain, the US, France, Australia and Canada get right and wrong about the military and the armed forces.

Hearts and Minds: misperceptions and the military

Ipsos MORI and King’s College London are releasing a new international survey that highlights what the public in Britain, the US, France, Australia and Canada get right and wrong about the military and the armed forces.

In Britain, we get a number of things wrong:

  1. We overestimate what we spend on the military – but we’re more accurate than other countries. On average, people in Britain think we dedicate 12% of all government spending (which would be £83.3bn) to the military, when the actual proportion is less than half that at 5% (£33.2bn). 1 But this is less wrong than all the other countries in the study – for example, Australians think that they spend 19% of their government budget on the military when the actual proportion is 7%. France is furthest out: the average guess is that they spend 28% of their total budget, when they only spend 5%. 2
  2. And British people still have an image of Britain as a relatively high spender on the armed forces. Most British people do realise that major military powers like the US and Russia spend more than us, but large proportions of the public still think we spend more than Australia and Canada, when in fact we spend slightly less as a proportion of overall government spending. So, for example, 38% think we spend a greater proportion of government funds on the military than Canada, and only 21% think we spend less (which is the correct answer).3
  3. But British people are more accurate in identifying the decline in the number of active duty military personnel over the last 10 years. On average, we guess that the numbers have declined by 13%, when the latest figures to 2012 show a decline of 19%. However this hides a wide variation: 20% think that the number of personnel has increased and at the other end of the spectrum, 20% think that personnel numbers have decreased by 30% or more. Other countries are also relatively accurate on average in estimating trends – for example France has decreased their armed forces by 10% in the last 10 years, and the average guess is 11%. 4
  4. A number of findings suggest that the public think that some issues are worse for the armed forces than they actually are – for example:
  • A large majority of the British public (65%) think that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is much more common among the armed forces than the general public – when in fact studies show the levels are similar. 5 Only 6% guess correctly that it seems to be about the same among the general population and the armed forces (although it should be noted that it is higher for reservists and those in combat). 6
  • The majority (53%) think that the suicide rate is higher among the armed forces than the general public – when it is in fact lower. Only 8% correctly identify that it is lower overall (the only exception being 16-19 year olds in the Army).
  • The public are more likely to think that homelessness is higher among the armed forces than the general public (40%), when in fact it is similar, which a lower proportion (32%) correctly identify. 7
  • 54% of the public think that former armed forces personnel are just as likely to be in prison (35%) or more likely to be in prison (19%) than the population as a whole - when actually they are less likely (which is correctly identified by 31%). 8
  • But the public are also more accurate or even underestimate some negative traits and outcomes for the armed forces:
    • 71% of the public correctly identify that Common Mental Disorder (such as depression or anxiety) is more common among the armed forces – according to one recent study, the actual rate seems to be twice the average for the working population (18-64 year olds) as a whole. 9
    • 51% correctly identify that high risk drinking (defined as alcohol consumption that results in ill effects to an individual's health or safety) is more common in the armed forces than among the general public – although 38% think it is about as common or less common. 10
    • 45% correctly identify that the unemployment rate is higher for former non-officer armed forces veterans, while 16% think it is lower. 11 The public are more split on the employment outcomes for former officers, with 25% thinking unemployment is lower (the correct answer) 31% thinking it is higher, and 31% thinking it is the same.12
  • But overall, we have a positive view of the armed forces as an institution and soldiers. 72% say they have a favourable view of soldiers and 65% have a favourable view of the armed forces. This is not quite as positive as our views of firefighters, doctors and nurses in Britain, but more favourable than our views of the police and teachers – and, not surprisingly, significantly ahead of our views of journalists, bankers and politicians. Looking internationally, this is also not quite as positive as views in the US (where 80% say they are favourable towards soldiers), but it is similar to the views in Canada and Australia, and significantly more positive than views in France (where only 52% say they have a favourable view of soldiers).
  • Christopher Dandeker, Professor of Military Sociology, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, said:

    "The results from this survey present a fascinating new insight into perceptions and misperceptions among the public – and raise questions about the causes and implications of these. For example, our overestimation of how much we spend will reflect our history as a great power, and our more or less continuously active military since the end of the Cold War and especially since 2001. But it also shows that British people are more accurate in identifying the decline in the number of active duty military personnel over the last 10 years. This reflects a secular trend since the end of the Second World War and the public’s accuracy will be partly due to it being a major theme in press comment and debate for some years."

    Laura Goodwin, lecturer in epidemiology, King’s College London, said:

    "From a mental health perspective the views of the public reflect the picture that is generally portrayed in the media; that PTSD is the most common issue. When, in fact, we know that depression and anxiety are more likely to be experienced by military personnel."

    Helen McCartney, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies, King's College London, said:

    "The survey responses appear to be influenced by the differing images of armed forces personnel that co-exist in British popular culture today. Some of the responses reflect the rise of the armed forces-as-victim image, with public over-estimation of specific challenges facing serving personnel and veterans."

    Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said:

    "We know from our previous work on our misperceptions that the British public are very wrong on a number of basic facts about the population, government spending and trends such as crime rates. This doesn’t mean people are stupid or do not care about these issues – instead it points to their concerns and how views are formed In this study, the image of the army and armed personnel is very accurate in places, and very wrong in others – but it presents a nuanced mental image when compared with the reality and other countries. People can see the armed forces as simultaneously heroes, victims and villains, depending on the focus of the question – which probably accurately reflects how they are portrayed across media and entertainment outlets."

    Technical note:

    • 5,010 interviews were conducted between conducted between 24 April and 8 May 2015.
    • The survey was conducted in 5 countries via the Ipsos Online Panel system in Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain and the United States of America.
    • In the US and Canada respondents are aged 18-64, and 16-64 in all other countries. Approximately 1000+ individuals were surveyed.
    • Where results do not sum to 100, this may be due to computer rounding, multiple responses or the exclusion of don't knows or not stated responses.
    • Data are weighted to match the profile of the population in each country.

    Notes

    [1] Expenditure data from HM Treasury for 2012

    [2] Government defence expenditure figures for 2012 and available at the World Bank Database website

    [3] While Britain spends 5% of its budget towards defence Canada spends 6.4%. Data available at the World Bank Database website

    [4] Figures on personnel size are for 2002 and 2012 and available at the World Bank Database website.

    [5] The King’s Centre for Military Health Research: A fifteen year report shows there is no evidence to suggest PTSD is more common in the armed forces.

    [6] On average the suicide rate for males in the armed forces between 1995 and 2014 (10 per 100,000) was statistically significantly lower than the UK general population according to the 2015 Ministry of Defence national statistics notice.

    [7] The number of ex-military in the homeless population is estimated at 6% according to a 2008 study by the University of York. The number of ex-military in the overall population is estimated to be around 6.1% according to 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey.

    [8] According to a 2014 review by the British Legion men that have served in the armed forces are less likely than men in the general population to commit offences and go to prison.

    [9] The rate of CMD is two times more likely in the armed forces than in the general population according to a King’s College London study by Laura Goodwin, Simon Wessely, and others, in 2015.

    [10] Using the score for hazardous drinking based on the AUDIT measurement, a study by Nicola Fear, and others, in 2007 found that 67% of males and 49% of females in the military engage in hazardous drinking compared to 38% of males and 16% of females in the general population.

    [11] According to the MOD Career Transition Partnership quarterly statistics in September 2014 7% of officers are unemployed within 6 months of discharge compared to the UK overall rate of roughly 6% in 2014 available at the ONS.

    [12] According to the MOD Career Transition Partnership quarterly statistics in September 2014 9% of non-officers are unemployed within 6 months of discharge.

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