How ignorant are we?

We know from our 2013 ‘Perils of Perception’ study that people in Britain are wildly wrong on many basic facts about our population and key social issues. The average person has a pretty poor understanding of things like what proportion of the population are immigrants or Muslims, what percentage of teenage girls get pregnant each year and how the government spends our money.

But are we uniquely ignorant in Britain? We decided to find out.

It turns out that people in other countries are just as wrong – in fact, often much more so than the British.

For example, Americans think that a quarter of all US teenage girls give birth each year – when the actual proportion is just 3%.

Huge overestimation of teenage births

 

The US is also one of the countries that are furthest from reality on the extent of immigration, with an average guess of 32%, when the actual proportion is just 13%.

The French think 31% of their countrymen are Muslims, when the real figure is 8%. The French are also too pessimistic about democratic engagement: they estimate only 57% voted in the last presidential election, when actually 80% did.

Incredibly, Italians think that half of their population is over 65 years old: Italy does have a relatively old population, but the actual figure is only 21%. Even more bizarrely, Italians also think half their population is unemployed, when the real figure is only 12%.

Index of Ignorance

Looking across all the questions, Britain does relatively well: we’re 5th most accurate out of 14 countries in our ‘Index of Ignorance’. Italy is the most wrong, with the US next worst. The most accurate countries are Sweden and Germany – although, even here, people are often very wrong.

So what’s going on here – why are people around the world so far from reality?

It’s partly that people just struggle with basic maths, and some clearly misunderstand the questions – there are lots of ludicrous estimates from many individual respondents.

People also take all sorts of mental shortcuts, where they grab for easily available information even if it doesn’t quite fit the question. In Daniel Kahneman’s terms, answers to these sorts of questions are classic examples of ‘fast’ thinking, rather than ‘slow’.1http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzJxAmJmj8w

Of course, the media are also bound to have a role in exaggerating our misperceptions – but we need to be careful here. Whenever we release results from these studies in the UK, one of the first responses is always “that will be a Daily Mail effect”. But the international element to this study shows we can’t lay the blame entirely at one particular title, or even type of newspaper: if the media are a cause, it’s a much broader global issue.

The real driver is how we remember information – how a single, vivid anecdote sticks, even if it’s describing something relatively rare. Politicians and the media regularly take advantage of this, but it is us who are susceptible to it.

We also suffer from what social psychologists call ‘emotional innumeracy’2http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-psychology-behind-political-debate/201008/immigration-innumeracy-how-well-informed-are-peop when answering these types of questions: we are sending a message about what’s worrying us as much as trying to get the right answers. Cause and effect can run both ways, with our concern leading to our misperceptions as much as our misperceptions creating our concern.

So, if there are all these explanations, does it really matter?

There are very clear instances where it is important. For example, we know that our mental image of ‘normal behaviour’ is important in how we ourselves behave. Consistently underestimating voter turnout is a problem then, as people have the wrong idea about the ‘norm’. Equally, an unfounded fear about rising crime can directly affect our quality of life and make us focus too much time and resources on the issue.

There are also more doom-laden schools of thought that say what we’re measuring here is ‘rational ignorance’3http://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/10/22/ilya-somin/why-most-political-ignorance-rational-why-it-matters-reply-jeffrey-friedman – people have no reason to inform themselves, with all the costs of time/effort that entails, if they can’t influence anything.

What’s the point in finding out about how government spends our money, whether crime is increasing or decreasing, or how many immigrants are coming to the country if our vote doesn’t affect political outcomes and decisions remain outside our control?

In this reading, our ignorance is due to a fatal flaw in our democratic system – one that cannot be overcome. The only option is to slash the state and central political control, and push decisions down to local areas and individuals where choices are more personal and therefore better-informed.

This is a logical conclusion, but extreme – our lack of political power is far from the only reason for our ignorance. Our study shows it’s not quite as consistent and inevitable as this suggests – some countries have a much better grasp of reality than others, and understanding why could help (it doesn’t seem to be national education levels or press behaviour, from our analysis).

But it does point to one key trap. Our ignorance is as much a symptom of our lack of control as a reason to keep power with an elite who supposedly know better. We should not conclude that people are too dumb to be trusted to make decisions – if we want a better informed population, we need to trust them more.

To test how you rank in our Index of Ignorance, take the quiz at www.ipsos-mori.com/perceptionsquiz

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