Major survey shows Britons overestimate the bad behaviour of other people

People in the UK often overestimate the bad behaviours of other people, a major new international study has revealed.

People in the UK often overestimate the bad behaviours of other people, a major new international study has revealed.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team, shows that we think more people are avoiding tax than is really the case, and that we think that more people eat over the recommended daily amount of sugar than really do.

At the same time, Britons massively underestimate how much exercise we really do, and underestimate the extent to which we are saving for retirement. And people in all countries surveyed believe that other people are throwing more sickies than they will admit to themselves.

This matters because our own behaviour is strongly influenced by what we think others are doing.

The survey findings are due to be unveiled on Thursday 3rd September at a major conference of behavioural scientists and policy makers in London being hosted by the Behavioural Insights Team (Behavioural Exchange 2015).

For example the survey reveals that the British public think that:

  • 69% of their fellow Britons eat more than the recommended amount of sugar, while nutrition surveys show it’s actually only 47%;
  • 65% of the population are not saving enough for retirement, when government studies suggest it’s actually 43%;
  • 36% of the population have avoided paying the full amount of tax on income or purchases in the past year, when only 6% admit to it themselves; and
  • only 42% of their countrymen do the recommended amount of exercise each week, when detailed surveys of physical activity show that 57% do.

The survey also showed people in all the countries surveyed (UK, US, Canada, Australia, France and Germany) were more likely to ascribe some more undesirable behaviours to their fellow countrymen than they were prepared to admit to themselves:

  • Across the six countries, people think that 52% of their fellow citizens have pretended to be sick in the past year, but only 23% of workers say they have done so themselves;
  • People also think that 66% in their country eat more sugar than the recommended daily amount, but only 40% of us say that we do so ourselves.

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

“This survey raises an important challenge for governments and others trying to influence behaviour. The public across countries have clearly got the message that we’re eating too much sugar, not exercising enough, not saving enough for retirement. But we now think these behaviours are much more common than they really are. We need to find a better balance between explaining the scale of an issue and not making it normal."

David Halpern, CEO of the Behavioural Insights Team, which worked with Ipsos MORI on the questions for the survey, said:

“Findings from behavioural science show us that people are strongly influenced by what they think their fellow citizens are doing. The Behavioural Insights Team, for example, has shown that people are more likely to pay their tax when they are reminded of the truth - that most people pay their tax on time. So this survey has important implications. We underestimate how virtuous our fellow citizens are, and this really matters. If we think others are cheating, not saving enough, or not eating healthily, then we’re much more inclined to do the same ourselves. Our perception of others’ behaviours is often way out of line with reality, and this has consequences for what we ourselves do”.




Technical note

Results are based on an online survey of 6,100 residents aged 16-64 (18-64 in the US and Canada) in 6 countries: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, France and Germany, conducted 24 July to 7 August 2015. Data are weighted to the population profile of each country.

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