Ipsos MORI have released a fascinating chunk of polling on how people’s perceptions differ from reality – report here and full toplines here.

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.


148 Responses to “The ignorance of crowds”

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  1. First time poster, I like this site because the regular posters appear less partisan. I also like the economic contributions from Colin and Alex.

    We will have to wait to find out the reasons for the slightly lower Labour percentage, if the 2010 number of Lib Dems has slipped to below a third that would be a worry for the Labour party.

    The Conservatives have scored 34% recently and if that coincides with this Labour score of 37%, then on that day, it would mean only a 3% Labour lead.

    I agree with a previous poster, in my opinion, someone connected with Labour needs to commission an opinion poll survey asking 2010 Lib Dem switchers to Labour, why they did so. I would also ask the following questions

    a. Why have you stuck with Labour since then?

    b. What would make you stay and vote for Labour in the next general election?

    c. What would make you not vote for them in 2015?

    And to be fair

    d. What would make you switch back to the Lib Dems?

    This interests me because I am one such voter – a Lib Dem switcher to Labour living in a marginal constituency.

  2. What on earth makes you say that, JAYBLANC? Ed M makes a major statement on Union funding – what could be a defining moment in Labour Party history and something he wants to be seen as a historical moment to boost his profile with the general public as the man who broke the union link with Labour and then he wants it hidden away? That makes absolutely no sense at all!

  3. @STATGEEK

    Hi – I only copied the Sun tweet, it wasn’t my comment about Falkirk, it was theirs.

  4. Miliband will want then funding issue to maintain momentum it allows Labour to continue to target the Conservatives in an area where they appear vulnerable

  5. Leonard Shapiro wrote of Soviet Russia that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

  6. Morning Everyone and a very special LOL for Paulcroft :)

    Well i suppose the talk today will be the 37% for Labour rather than the static 32% for the Cons.

    Its all very exciting as they must surely meet up one day soon at 35% level pegging!

    No doubt tomorrows poll will be Lab 40 Con 31 again – but who knows now.

    :) = lol

  7. Jayblanc

    The Blofeld-esque villains are not only keeping the real story about benefit fraud quiet. They are also plotting against us to keep millions of Muslims and under-age pregnancies off the record. I wonder what their plan is?

    Me, I’m going to invest all my wealth in bottled water and ammunition because we’re clearly on the road to catastrophe.

  8. SN

    “Morning Everyone and a very special LOL for Paulcroft ”

    Please don’t interrupt my Bach fugue: it’s what we musicians call “bleedin’ difficult”.

    There’s a bit where there are two voices, one legato and one staccato and they keep swapping roles. still, as my ole Dad used to say of a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well.

    He died two months before Kennedy so a big anniversary later this year. Well, two I suppose including the President. My Dad was called Joe, just like JFK’s.

  9. GDP is an interesting case – it is always referred to in national aggregate terms whereas it is per capita data which measures individual prosperity, after deducting the state’s tax take.

    Even if you assume that most of the tax is spent on services we would want if we had a choice, and are efficiently bought for us (heroic assumptions, I grant), then the per capita test is still more important that national aggregates.

    As the population rises the GDP measure would have to rise at least as fast for Joe public to be as well off. We know the trends on this!

    If you factor in the costs of additional infrastructure and housing to serve a larger population, costs borne by the pre-existing population, then an even better GDP per head rise would be needed.

  10. Lefty

    “Me, I’m going to invest all my wealth in bottled water and ammunition because we’re clearly on the road to catastrophe.”

    You might want to consider a gun: unless you’re just planning to throw the ammunition at people?

  11. PC.

    Damn. I knew there was a flaw in the plan. I’m a pacifist you see, so I can’t have a gun. Mind, given that there are literally millions of the things out there in circulation, and literally billions of criminals using them, maybe I could salve my conscience and just pay some scum of the earth type to use it on my behalf.

  12. @Sine Nomine

    There is no doubt that ther has been a decline of about 1.5 to 2 points in Labours lead since the 21st July.looking at three day moving averages.

    @Paul Croft

    Which of Bach’s fugues are you working on? A musical form i have always liked very much indeed.

  13. Here is the quirk about using expected figures to calculate benefit fraud like the over 90s, ONS over calculated the number of over 90s by some 30 000 odd… so those 30 000 who did not make it past 90 but showed on the expected figures should they go onto the “benefit fraud list” or take them off now we now of the miscalculation?

    The funny thing about benefits is the perception that the person getting them should not…smiles

  14. LL

    Cunning. You’d still qualify for heaven that way.

    Actually I think you can do that by just saying sorry allthough I’m not clued up on all of the finer details.

  15. So just 5% gap, although latest poll could be just margin of error, so need to see the rest of the week really.

  16. Petrol prices might be one to watch. Uncertainty in Egypt is pushing up global prices, albeit relatively modestly, but the AA is blaming Mark Carney’s comments on keeping interest rates low for the slump in sterling, which is driving up prices as oil is priced in dollars.

    The AA’s press release talks of a ‘perfect summer storm’ for motorists. I’m not altogether sure that they aren’t rather over egging this, but we have had previous posters suggesting a link between fuel prices and VI – not completely out of the question, as a key driver of economic sentiment is household finances, which would clearly be affected by any big jump in fuel costs.

    One to keep an eye on, at least.

  17. Howard

    The Violin Sonata in G minor which was also arranged by a close friend of JSB for the lute. My arrangement is based on the violin one but uses a lot of the bass line from the lute score.

    It is so stimuating to work on.

    We had an all-Bach night in my festival last month with solo guitar, guitar duo, cello, violin and flute all playing unaccompanied Bach and it was wonderful. Big audience too. Cello suites are wonderful.

  18. @Norbold

    Look at the news cycle. We had a short period of ‘Union scandal!’, which was turned quickly into ‘Miliband takes a Strong Leadership Decision’, which was turned quickly into ‘Questions raised about Conservative Party Funding’ just in time for ‘MPs to get a massive pay rise!’. This was pretty clearly handled to fit this timing, and is now going to force a response from Cameron on the issue of party funding and MPs pay.

    The ball is now in Cameron’s court, but Miliband has delivered him a drop volley. Is Cameron in position to return it?

  19. @Paul Croft

    Lovely stuff, I have a Segovia record of him playing Bach, beautiful arrangments.

    Your post sends me off to the allotments with a spring in my step.

    Have a good day.

  20. Interesting article by Richard Grayson – formerly of the LD party – in the Grauniad. An LD supporter / activist for 20+ years, he’s left the party and will not be voting for them again.

    Might we be entering another period in which LD supporters review their allegiance I wonder?

  21. @Sine Nomine

    I meant the 21st of June of course.

  22. Petrol prices might be one to watch. Uncertainty in Egypt is pushing up global prices, albeit relatively modestly, but the AA is blaming Mark Carney’s comments on keeping interest rates low for the slump in sterling, which is driving up prices as oil is priced in dollars.

    -Wasn’t a great deal of downward pressure when Oil prices fell over 105 over the last couple of months before the Pound took a bashing which was reflected in no change at all at the pumps.

    Wasn’t there something about a European Commission investigation into the Oil Cartels (alleged) price fixing of intermediate and end user prices?

    This seems to have gone away as all previous investigations of this sort do .

    The Oil Business has money to burn in passing the buck on price increases onto Government Duties when the responsibility in General lies with them

  23. 5% seems at the lower end of recent Yougov Labour leads and 8% at the upper end. Overall, it seems the Yougov lead is probably currently at about 6-7%.

  24. AW
    It has been noted (on the Grauniad site) that the Sun is losing readers quicker than say the Mirror is, and that the potential reason for this may be the support the Sun gives to the Tories/Coalition.

    This might suggest that current / residual Sun readers are more disposed to support the Tories…so do pollsters reflect this kind of movement on an-going basis?

  25. Mike N – you mean, if people who ceased to by the Sun were less supportive of the Tories than people who continued to?

    The sample of former Sun readers would be too small to get an accurate reading of and would actually be very ill-defined and difficult to pin down, as much of the ups and downs of the ABC figures will be people buying a paper more often or less often.

    Even then, it wouldn’t actually demonstrate causality. I think Roy Greenslade has largely answered his own question by saying it’s far-fetched and politics is not the main reason people choose to buy their morning red-top

  26. @Jay,

    The methodology of the DWP figures doesn’t appear to be as thorough as you suggest. They simply randomly sampled a small proportion of claims and reviewed them. That involved interviews with the claimants, but there doesn’t appear to have been any covert investigation involved.

    It certainly would have uncovered some of the more blatant abuse (Nigerian mother claiming child benefit for 29 children from 1bed flat in Hackney, when 18 of the children don’t exist and the other 11 live in Africa type stuff) but I don’t think there’s any reason to suppose that it would have uncovered people working whilst claiming. I’d be willing to bet that the claimants were interviewed by appointment, so there was probably not much chance of them even accidentally being caught out when the interviewers bowled up at their door.

    DWP do indeed have recourse to RIPA, and so can deploy men with cameras in vans, but under RIPA they can only do this where they have good reason to and where the tactic is proportionate to the offence. A decision to surveil someone simply because their benefit claim had been randomly selected for review would be illegal.

    AW’s central observation still holds; people’s ability to accurately estimate the extent of “problems” is extremely poor. All I am saying is that “Official Statistics”, whilst they may be the best we have to go on, are by no means the Gospel Truth,

    @Amber,

    Good point. Historically, pregnancies in 13-15 year olds haven’t been reported to the police unless the offender is known to be an adult, or there was no consent.

    Policy is that sexual activity between two children each aged 13-15 years shouldn’t normally be criminalised. Added to that the issues around “Gillick Competence” which place sexual and family planning issues for older children outside the control of their parents, make it quite difficult to pursue such cases unless the victim is “on board”. We do sometimes cajole teenaged girls into giving evidence against older males when they don’t consider themselves to be “victims” but obviously there are limits to how far we can take this (we usually save it for cases where a young man is systematically targeting underaged girls for sex).

  27. To be in with a realistic chance of being the largest party in 2015, I think the Tories would want to Labour to at least be down to an average 4% to 5% lead with Yougov by the end of 2013.

    At the moment, they probably have to cut the lead by a further 2-3% for that to be achieved.

  28. Interesting article anthony – though I guess there is also the problem that quite a high proportion don’t probably know what a percentage is….let alone how it might relation to a population of say 60 million.

  29. @ambivalent,

    Much as I would like to think differently, I agree with you. I think the lead is around 7% rather than 5%, but I can hope. :-)

  30. John – actually though I said percentage, since that’s what it was, MORI didn’t actually use the term percentage in some of the questions. Instead they asked it along the lines out “Out of every 100 people in Britain, how many people do you think are black/over65/etc/etc”

    Though of course, some the strange answers will still be down to innumeracy rather than ignorance.

  31. Floating voter welcome.

    At some point the 2010 LD- Lab will imo fall further and I guess the 35% min Lab figure is based on maintaining more or less thei 2010 voters plus 1/4 of 2010 LDs.

    Which parties is your marginal between as whether disappointed 2010 LD in LD/Con marginal will hold their noses and vote for LD rather than Labour has been a recurring question on this site.

  32. AW
    thanks

  33. @Rich,

    “Much as I would like to think differently, I agree with you. I think the lead is around 7% rather than 5%, but I can hope. :-)”

    I suppose one positive for the Tories is that if Yougov adjusted according to likelihood to vote, I think the current 6-7% lead would likely fall by another 1% to 2% or so to 4%-6%.

    When you think about it, save for the odd outlier, it’s remarkable how much all the pollsters seem to be in line with each other when you account for the methodological differences.

  34. Interesting article by Richard Grayson – formerly of the LD party – in the Grauniad. An LD supporter / activist for 20+ years, he’s left the party and will not be voting for them again.

    -Wasn’t that Robin’s Alter- Ego Wonder Who Batman will be voting for?

  35. The Other Richard Grayson was the Parliamentary Candidate in My Town I always wondered why He wasn’t carrying His Utility Belt.

    Holy Lost Elections Batman!

  36. @AmbivalentSupporter

    “To be in with a realistic chance of being the largest party in 2015, I think the Tories would want to Labour to at least be down to an average 4% to 5% lead with Yougov by the end of 2013.
    At the moment, they probably have to cut the lead by a further 2-3% for that to be achieved.”

    The interesting thing about the polls at the moment is that any narrowing of the gap between Tory and Labour is almost always down to a fall in the Labour VI as opposed to any significant increase in the Tory VI. Today’s poll is a case in point with the Tories two points lower than where they were on Sunday, yet with a smaller gap due to Labour declining by three points.

    While Tory sympathisers will be gladdened by a reduction in the Labour vote, the more realistic amongst them will know that, somewhere between now and May 2015, they’ve got to find upwards of 6-8% to stand any realistic hope forming a majority government. Even on YouGov who tend to be generous towards them on VI, there is absolutely no sign of any significant Tory recovery at all. If you take other pollsters, they’re either stagnating in the late 20s or actually going backwards.

    The Tories need to close the gap with Labour by dint of improving their level of support. In other words, if the Labour vote falls they need to be the major beneficiaries. At the moment, there isn’t a shred of polling evidence to suggest that is the case.

  37. @CrossBat,

    I agree with everything you said…no evidence yet that Tories can hit 35%+ needed to be the largest party. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen come 2015, but as of yet certainly no polling evidence to suggest the Tories will.

  38. As I remarked previously I am fairly sure that DC’s aggressive stance at PMQs are also hurting their poll figures. He talks in a manner that he most certainly wouldn’t in a TV debate and I would be interested in polling that goes into this question.

    The shame is that he can come over as a thoroughy decent and compassionate man very often and – were I advising hime – I’d suggest that patient courtesy would be a better foil than his current tactic.

  39. Shame about the Ozzies.

  40. Just a real polling question, to anyone who can answer:

    I’m interested in the standard error.

    If Labour are polling at 40%, is teh SE based o

  41. Just a real polling question, to anyone who can answer:

    I’m interested in the standard error.

    If Labour are polling at 40% on a poll of 1000 people, is the SE based on the square root of (p*(1-p))/n.

    ie the square root of (0.40 * (1.00 – 0.40)) / 1000

    = SQRT ((0.40 * 0.60) / 1000)

    = SQRT (0.24 / 1000)

    = SQRT (0.00024)

    = 0.015

    Is this right??

  42. ……

    And the 95% confidence interval is 1.96 * 0.015 = 0.0303 ??

    So at a 95 % CI, it’s would be 40% +/- 3.03% ??

    Thanks in advance.

  43. Has anyone seen this this YouGov poll on Royal Mail privatisation?

    http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/07/11/two-thirds-public-oppose-royal-mail-sell/

    Interesting results…

  44. Privatisation of public services is always opposed by large majorities in polls, yet this is never tackled in the regular mainstream commentary that always seems to come to the conclusion that people are ever more right-wing and that Labour must turn it’s back on such things. I can’t imagine a promise to renationalise utilities and the railways plus roll back NHS privatisation-creep would be a vote-loser by any means.

  45. Anthony,

    Yopu wrote: “In a few cases though people really do give quite barking answers. … People think that 15% of girls aged under 16 get pregnant each year, when the actual figure is 0.6%.”

    Surely that is (at least partly) also a case of “people answering slightly different questions to the ones MORI asked or intended to ask.” In this case, the questions most likely to be answered is what proportion of teenagers get pregnant – the ‘each year’ being ignored, and the ‘under 16’ substituted by the more commonly used phrase of ‘teenage pregnancies’.

    regards,

    Christian

  46. @Pablo420

    “Has anyone seen this this YouGov poll on Royal Mail privatisation?”

    Staggeringly, a majority of Tory voters are opposed to the privatisation too (by 48% to 40%)!

    If the rail privatisation was Major’s “poll tax on wheels” is the proposed Royal Mail sell-off Cameron’s potential “poll tax in envelopes”? lol.

    Little wonder they wheeled out Cable to make the statement in the House yesterday.

  47. This thread is dead

  48. Long live the next thread

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