Perceptions are not reality

A new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London highlights how wrong the British public can be on the make-up of the population and the scale of key social policy issues.

Perceptions are not reality

A new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London highlights how wrong the British public can be on the make-up of the population and the scale of key social policy issues.  The top ten misperceptions are:

1.       Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates:  we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%[i]

2.       Crime: 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19% lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53% lower than in 1995[ii].  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[iii].

3.       Job-seekers allowance: 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)[iv].

4.       Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100[v].

5.       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)[vi].

6.       Religion: we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.  And we underestimate the proportion of Christians: we estimate 34% on average, compared with the actual proportion of 59% in England and Wales[vii].

7.       Immigration and ethnicity: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%[viii]. 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% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups)[ix].

8.       Age: we think the population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 36% of the population are 65+, when only 16% are[x].

9.       Benefit bill: people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+.  In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m[xi], compared with £5bn[xii] for raising the pension age and £1.7bn[xiii] for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.

10.   Voting: we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% of the electorate actually did (51% of the whole population)[xiv]

These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making, which will be discussed at an event being run by the Royal Statistical Society, King’s College London and Ipsos MORI today, as part of the International Year of Statistics.

Bobby Duffy Interview on BBC Radio 4 World At One

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Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said:

‘Our data poses real challenges for policymakers. How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence? We need to see three things happen. First, 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. Our ‘getstats’ campaign is trying to create change at all of these levels.’

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London said:

“It is worth reminding ourselves about the scale of some of these misperceptions on key policy issues.  For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration, how much would be saved by different changes to benefits, how much is spent on foreign aid and the real incidence of teenage pregnancy.  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. However, we need to avoid dismissing public opinion: everyone has a vote, misperceptions have always been with us and they may reflect concerns – that is, people may over-estimate issues because they are worried about them, not the other way round.  A lack of trust in government information is also very evident in other questions in the survey – so “myth-busting” is likely to prove a challenge on many of these issues.  But it is still useful to understand where people get their facts most wrong.” 

Press Coverage

No one knows nothing anymore

— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) July 10, 2013
Technical note Ipsos MORI carried out 1,015 interviews online with adults aged 16-75. Fieldwork took place between 14th – 18h June 2013. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population. Notes:

[i] This figure refers to pregnancies resulting in a live birth or legal abortion, not the total number of conceptions. Under 16 refers to women aged 13-15.



[xiv] 65% of adults voted in the 2010 general election.  This equates to approximately 51% of the total UK population.

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