A lot of the poll won’t be anything new to regular readers. We’ve all seen previous polls showing that the general public underestimate this or overestimate that, especially on figures that we really have no reason to expect the average man in the street to know. The public underestimate the average salary, they overestimate the proportion of children living in poverty and the number of over 65s. They underestimate turnout at the last election, and overestimate the proportion of crime that is violent. In all these cases though, why would we really expect people to know – they are the sort of thing you look up if you need it.
A few cases are also probably cases of people answering slightly different questions to the ones MORI asked or intended to ask. For example, on average people thought 34% of people in Britain were Christians, whereas 59% of people identified themselves as Christian in the census. Did people get it wrong? Well, we don’t really know, as while 59% describe themselves as Christian in the census, we know most of them don’t go to church and polling shows many don’t even believe in a God…so exactly how were respondents defining “Christian”? Respondents said that on average that 28% of people in Britain are single parents (my emphasis), when the actual figure is 3%. 28% would be absurdly high once you factor in the proportion of people in Britain who are children themselves or don’t have children… but my guess is that many people have probably mentally parsed that as having asked what percentage of parents are single parents (I suspect they’ve still overestimated it, but not by so much!)
In a few cases though people really do give quite barking answers. For example, on average people think that a quarter of the British population are Muslim (the actual figure is 5%). 5% of people are under the impression that over half of the British population is Muslim. People think that 15% of girls aged under 16 get pregnant each year, when the actual figure is 0.6%.
Some of this is what I think of as “hell in a hand basket” responses. Whatever the reality and whatever the statistics show, people do normally tend to say that things are getting worse and heading the wrong direction. I’ve previously mentioned crime figures and the public’s firm opinion that crime is rising, regardless of the firm evidence that crime has been falling for twenty years or so. MORI tested some true and false statements along those lines in this survey, and found the usual pattern – if there was a false negative statement, people belived it. If there was false positive statement, people didn’t believe it, and vice-versa with true statements. The only true, positive statement that a plurality of people believed was that MRSA infections in hospitals were falling. I expect things like people overestimating rates of teenage pregnancy stem from similar causes.
As well as the familar litany of public ignorance though, MORI also asked some fun questions I hadn’t seen before. One of the statements asked what proportion of people in Britain today are immigrants (that is, were born outside the UK). On average people said 31%, when the actual figure is 13%. MORI then went back to those people who said the proportion was 26% or more (that is, those who were wildly out), told them the official census figure and asked them why they had thought it was so much higher. 23% gave the honest and straightforward answer that it had just been a guess, a further chunk of people said they’d be answering based on what they saw in the media (19% TV, 16% papers – people could give more than one answer) or in their local area (36%). The biggest chunk clung to their view anyway, with 56% saying the census must be missing out on illegal immigrants, and 46% saying they still believed it was more than 13%. People are very keen to defend their faulty opinions, even when, as in the this case, it is probably just an on the spot guess they’ve made in an online survey.
Another question in the MORI survey repeated a question that YouGov asked for the TUC last year, asking people what proportion of benefits are claimed fraudulently. The actual answer is about 0.7%, but on average people said 24% (very similar to the 27% that YouGov got). MORI then asked people what sort of fraud people were including when they answered the question. 42% of people said they were including people from abroad claiming benefits, 34% were including people claiming benefits who hadn’t paid tax, 32% were including people having children just so they could claim more benefits. So at least part of the reason for the discrepancy is that when some people say people are fraudulently claiming benefits, they are apparantly including “people I don’t much like claiming benefits in a perfectly legal and honest way”.
Another fun question was that after asking people whether the economy was in a good or bad shape, MORI then asked them what figures they based their answer on. The top answer was unemployment (52%), followed by inflation (40%), government debt (38%) and high street shops (32%). GDP figures were 23%. Now, I should add that while this is interesting, the answers are almost certainly complete nonsense – most of us really don’t have a very good idea of how we actually reach decisions and what we actually base our beliefs upon. A glaring ommission from the options, whether or not people would have consciously picked it, is “whether the TV, radio and newspapers tell me the economy is getting better”. Nevertheless, it would be an interesting experiment to take economic optimism figures for the last forty years and plot them against unemployment, inflation, growth and so on and see which, if any, does correlate the most. I suspect we wouldn’t see a consistent pattern, as the measures the media and political world have fixated upon have changed over time, back in the 1960s and 70s they got het up about the balance of payments, then levels of inflation – these days it’s GDP that seems to be the measure the media focus the most attention upon.
All in all, the poll is a reminder of how public perceptions of the economy, crime, immigration, social issues and, I am sure, many other facets of social policy can have little or no resemblence to reality. When we talk about how improving standards here, or the government missing targets there, might affect people’s votes, remember that people’s perception of those standards, those targets or those changes may be completely at odds with reality.