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. All that work just to tell us what everyone already knows, people who read ring wing papers are clueless f******s

  2. It is strange that the errors all point in the direction right – and copy the line bein fed by the Coalition and the press.

    Do this misunderstandings influence the replies we see on welfare etc seeing that the public perception is so far out and shouldn’t all political classes attempt to make sure the right information is given so that the electorate make decisions based on fact and not propoganda?

  3. apologies for the spelling – smartphone keyboards….

  4. Jay – one of the problems is the majority of our press are right wing, so that means there is a good chance there are quite a lot of clueless fwits for them to spoon feed their stereotypes.

  5. I have observed the sheep response for many years. There will be some headline opinions saying “They’re all in it for the money” and that is what the public at large will parrot back.

    Thus the attacks on Miliband are potentially damaging ‘cos it doesn’t matter what sort of leader he is if people are constantly hearing that he’s useless, weak etc.

    And, as Jay says this is what the ring wing papers ** always write.

    ** where can you get ’em?

  6. The right wing press thing intrigues me. I feel we get the press, poiticians etc that we deserve which would lead one to imagine that we are a right of centre country if you go my sales of newspapers. But if you go by voting trends we’re not.

    Personally I am sick of people moaning about “We need more ordinary people etc etc” but not doing a thing themselves to get involved. I would like to myself but I recognise that it’s bloody hard work so I don’t. En el otro mano I try not too complain too much about those who do.

    Have there been any polls about us being the most moany nation on earth?

  7. If there was a moany nation olympics we’d all be saying

    “We’re rubbish at moaning: I bet we come last.”

  8. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that people who buy daily newspapers are older and slightly wealthier than the rest of the population, and hence are more likely to be right wing.

    Of course, there are left-wing older people too, who buy the Mirror or the Guardian or the Independent, but fewer of them.

    Young people are less likely to vote, it’s true, but it’s not like they don’t vote at all. That and the non-paper-buying older generations produces the more left-inclined voting patterns.

  9. Having said that, only those inside a party really know how strong a leader is and the papers can brazenly make it up sometimes.

    For instance, Kinnock was allegedly iron-fisted in taking on Militant and brought his party together during tough times. But to read right-wing press reports of the time you’d think him a dithering idiot. I suspect ethnicity and class may have come into that one too.

  10. mr n

    good point – and papers create news which is then reflected in the media more generally.

  11. From the thread title it may be that AW is taking the opportunity to have an indirect dig at the ICM so-called “wisdom of crowds” method, which has a mixed track record to date in so far as it has one at all.

    If collective public opinion of the present is so divorced from reality, why should we vest mystical powers in the ability of collective public opinion to predict the future?

  12. Who is to say only 0.7% of benefits are fraudulently claimed? The very nature of fraud is that it is often difficult to detect. The ‘0.7%’ figure maybe the ‘official’ figure trotted out by Government- you can bet your bottom dollar though that the figure is much, much higher. How much benefit fraud takes place amongst folk who ‘legitimately’ claim benefits- ie those who are rightly claiming JSA, for instance, but who claim for other things that really they shouldn’t be? Or how about those who don’t acknowledge the mass savings they have when they sign the form claiming their ‘entitlements’? The system is riddled with fraud and it would be impossible to ever come to an accurate figure to the extent of the fiddling that goes on.

  13. Have CiF migrated over here? Plenty of “it show’s The Right are thick” comments here although you’d have to be a bit daft ( or a Guardian reader) not to see the questions are such that they would tend to be testing the lack of knowledge of exactly those people. Likewise I fully expect those on “The Left” to appear equally ignorant to questioning along the lines of “How much tax to “The Rich” pay?” or somesuchlike.

  14. Public funding for poitical parties is a case in point. If the question was phrased so as to compare TU donantions and rich peope donations to Public Funding and the former being restricted or banned, then I am certain there would be overwhelming support. after all it would cost, in overall budget terms, virtually nothing and I really don’t think we want a US system where the richer you are the more publicity you can buy.

    But if the newspapers are against and, as at the moment, the PM makes it sound awful, then we just carry on in this silly manner.

    I think they should teach basic thinking and analysis at school.

  15. ringo

    I’m afraid your prejudices are colouring your speculations.

  16. Wikpedia define propaganda as follows: –

    “Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of the community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda statements may be partly false and partly true. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.
    As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience.

    Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political, religious or commercial agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare.”

    It sounds worryingly like what some of our leading newspapers get up, doesn’t it, especially those with politically motivated proprietors and editors? Propaganda shouldn’t be confused with journalism, yet I think it often is.

  17. “you can bet your bottom dollar though that the figure is much, much higher.”

    “it would be impossible to ever come to an accurate figure to the extent of the fiddling that goes on.”


    I shall save my bottom dollar in that case.

    As I said, joined up thinking should be taught at schools.

  18. Robin – yep, such biases affect us all – if you look in the MORI questions here, things like overestimating the amount of child poverty, are, I suppose, sort of a left-wing equivalent. Somebody relying wholly on the Guardian for their news is as likely to think that child poverty is more widespread than it in as someone who relied on the Express for their news would likely think we are being swamped by immigrants who want to eat our swans and live in our sheds.

    I do tend to put some of the differences down to media reporting, especially the “hell in a handbasket” stuff, not because of left-right bias, but because good news writes white. “Horrible hospital scandal” or “horrific murder” make the front page, “hospital trundles along nicely” and “no one murdered today” naturally don’t.

    Paul – you might think so, but it doesn’t really. No doubt there will be many questions about it in the days ahead, but last time we asked about funding we asked about limits on trade union donations, then limits on busines donations, then limits on donations from individuals (people like all of them)… then asked whether people would prefer getting rid of donations and having taxpayers funding instead?

    No, they didn’t.

  19. Anthony

    “No, they didn’t.”

    Well the miserablle buggers.

  20. @Ringo,

    I absolutely agree.

    I think a very strong microscope has to be taken to anything claiming to be an “official figure”. The vast majority of what happens in society goes on pretty much unnoticed in the rarefied air of Governance.

    I suspect the 0.7% figure is probably something like “all claims paid out and then subsequently discovered to have been made unlawfully”. It will miss the majority of claimants doing cash-in-hand work, men claiming to live seperately to their partners (to preserve their partner’s benefits) etc.

    It may also include types of benefit that are relatively immune to fraud (such as pensions credit etc).

    If that is the case, then to me 0.7% is an enormous figure, given the size of the welfare budget.

    I think that’s part of the issue. People think “Big Problem” must mean “Big Percentage”. 0.6% of girls under 16 getting pregnant each year is, when you think about it, very high. But a statistical ignoramus (which includes most people, even those who are relatively numerate) might understand that what they see around them is a problem, without realising that the number involved looks small as a statistic. As many have admitted, they just pick a number out of the air.

  21. Following on from my earlier post, propaganda isn’t the preserve of the Right by any means, as Pravda and a whole other range of communist media outlets have proved down through the ages. And I’m not claiming that newspapers like the Sun and Mail are Pravda equivalents, but you’d have to be very naive to think that they aren’t continually pushing a political agenda and, in so doing, using some of the propagandists black arts.

    I have no problems with polemicists venting forth on clearly demarcated opinion and comment pages, but when the political angle of the proprietor and/or editor permeates the news reporting then I think we’re tipping into propaganda country.

  22. @PC

    “We’re rubbish at moaning: I bet we come last.”

    I’m so sick of the negative attitudes in this country. :p


    “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.”

    I would guess that the London-based, multi-culti (a catch-all term for my purposes here; not meant as derogatory) media is partly to blame. Take this example:


    4 out of 11 (36%) pictured are of asian ethnicity.

    Lately I’ve been watching re-runs of Spooks. The ‘team’ recently changed as they recycled the actors. One white guy out, one in. One white woman out, one in. One black guy out, one asian in.

    It’s a form of tokenism that frankly gets boring, especially as there might be a lot of arab/muslim people employed by the security services in modern times.

    There’s also some stereotyping, and I imagine they don’t spot it themselves. The IT boffins are male, white and aged 35 to 55. Your average anti-hacking boffin might easily be an ex-hacker in his or her 20s.

  23. For those who want to assess their ignorance, the Guardian has a mini-test based on the MORI survey:


  24. Yay, I got 9/10.

    AW, I do have to correct you on one thing: It made the news the day nobody was murdered in New York CIty: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/reported-shot-stabbed-slashed-nyc-monday-article-1.1209204

  25. 90% of statistics are false (exclusive of this one.)

  26. @Jay

    “All that work just to tell us what everyone already knows, people who read ring wing papers are clueless f******s”

    That comment looks clueless too.

  27. I’m back after a short absence. Great article by AW on the prejudices of both the right and left, and how many people are ignorant of basic facts.

    I wonder if the amount/proportion of tax evasion by the rich or wealthy is also grossly overestimated? I would guess that this is almost definitely the case.

    Of course, it’s also dependent on the use and interpretation of stats. For instance, stats produced by the Office for National Statistics out today on the BBC website show that income inequality has actually fallen under this government….but I can only assume that this is because the relative measure of poverty is used (as, indeed, it always tends to be in the UK). This means that in times of recession, income inequality falls, whilst in times of great economic growth income inequality rises according to stats. But I’m one of those who believes that stats should always be taken in context….in this case, income inequality has fallen in the last few years, BUT most people are, in reality, much worse off financially. For people at the bottom or middle of the income scale the fact that income inequality has fallen I am sure is scant consolation!

    Unfortunately, most of the UK media are seemingly incapable of reporting news in context – the Tony Martin case being a classic example.

  28. This article is very much an “establishment” position. It’s terribly complacent.

    For instance, I can tell you why people think crime is getting worse. It’s because they can see that there is a problem, and they don’t trust the statistics any more. The reason they don’t trust the statistics is that the police make clear that they’re worthless. If the crime statistics rise, a policeman appears on the box to say that this is merely because more crimes are being reported. But if crime statistics fall, the same policeman does NOT say that this is because fewer crimes are being reported; on the contrary, he says that there is less crime. We know that the police are ignoring crimes like burglary; we know that in December 2000, when gypsies occupied the centre of Great Yarmouth, they did nothing; we know that they arrested poor old Tony Martin for defending himself and then punished him as severely as possible; we know that they arrest sandwichboardmen for preaching against sin, but that there is never a policeman on the beat. In short … we don’t trust the police any more. And we can tell that they are lying to us. From personal, first hand observation.

    Why do we presume that there is 33% Moslems? because on the TV it is apparently obligatory that every third presenter is an immigrant. Why else? What you present is what we see.

    Why do 59% of the handful questioned — yes, we know you didn’t ask many people — identify themselves as Christian? Because that is traditional. Nothing more or less.

    And so it goes. What people say is what they know about.

    It is not very rational to lie to the public, and then complain that they do not trust you. Trust has to be earned, and deserved. Pollsters don’t get much of either.

  29. @Statgeek,

    I don’t watch Spooks myself, but if the degree of accuracy is anything like it is in TV detective dramas my wife watches, then a slightly skewed range of ethnic backgrounds is the least of your worries.

    I wonder how many citizens are aware that murders (never mind less serious crimes) are investigated almost entirely by constables and sergeants, with the real life Inspector Morses and Lewises having a mostly administrative, supervisory role (which they often forget to carry out….)

  30. I suppose one of the problems is the availability of data – as we can download them, they are for use, irrespective of the purpose they were created, represent, etc. It is certainly very common in academia. And people get upset if you tell them all the horrible errors they make due to this (e.g. growing inequality). Oddly the data creators are OK with criticising themselves, but not with outside criticisms. Quod licet Jovi…

  31. “on the TV it is apparently obligatory that every third presenter is an immigrant.”

    D’you mean from Scotland?

  32. “we know that they arrested poor old Tony Martin for defending himself”

    I thought that until I read the real facts of the case. Remember that the jury members comprised of the general British public found him guilty.

    And I say that as someone who isn’t at all against self-defence as long it’s done through genuine fear of one’s life and is not disproportionate….if someone entered my house and I was in fear of my life, I wouldn’t hesitate in defending myself. But contrary to media reporting at the time, Tony Martin’s case was totally different.

  33. Laszlo – “I suppose one of the problems is the availability of data – as we can download them, they are for use, irrespective of the purpose they were created, represent”

    Tell me about it. Always reticent about putting polling questions out there which are difficult to interpret or easily misconstrued. Yes, we know what they really mean and we can brief the client on the right and wrong way to interpret them and what they actually mean…. but once the tabs are out there they are free for the rest of the world to misinterpret.

  34. TOH

    Nice one [as we young people say]

    Re the above “immigrant” statement I can’t say I really notice anyone’s ethnicity anymore; I just want them to speak clearly and with humour/gravity depending on the type of news. I don’t see why it should concern anyone as an issue but, since there are usually only a couple on at any one time – plus some specialist news people added occasionally it seems reasonable to try to have people of varying ethnicity.

    In the old days you could be a UK citizen and the child of a West Indian “immigrant” who was invited here by the UK Govt. in the 50’s, yet never see any reflection of yourself or your own lifestyle on TV.

    [I draw the line at Northerners of course – can’t understand a word.]

  35. @ AmbivalentSupporter

    Inequality is one of the most abused statistics. Choose the right time period and indicator and you can claim anything.

    There is actually no correlation between inequality and economic cycle. There are so many factors in work (sector shifts, taxation and benefit policies, redistribution policies, price variance, skill-demand, employment, taxation of capital, corporate incomes, etc) that would make me weep if I had to study it seriously.

  36. Neil A

    “0.6% of girls under 16 getting pregnant each year is, when you think about it, very high”

    Is it? About one girl in 166 gets pregnant under 16. That’s what, about 2 girls in every 11 all girl classes of 30. And “gets preganat” I assume includes all those who terminate the pregnancy.

    Doesn’t sound high to me. Sounds like girls are being remarkably sensible given the media bombardment with sex they get and the supposed attitude to free housing.

  37. ambi

    “I’m back after a short absence”

    How did they treat you in prison?

  38. @Paul Croft,

    Thank you young man.

  39. Nick – technically the figure was based on live-births and/or abortions, so it would be a bit higher if one also included pregnancies that ended in miscarriage (the ONS estimate is 10% of pregnancies of under 30s end in miscarriage).

    Should also add that the figure refers to the percentage of girls between 13 and 15, which really should have been mentioned in the question, but there goes. The absence of it probably skewed the figure downwards rather than upwards.

  40. statgeek

    I would guess that the London-based, multi-culti (a catch-all term for my purposes here; not meant as derogatory) media is partly to blame. Take this example:

    4 out of 11 [television presenters](36%) pictured are of asian ethnicity.

    London is the key word here though. About 20% of Londoners are of “full or partial Asian descent”


    So if you’re looking at the make up of people presenting news to London, then 4 of 11 isn’t too far out.

    The real problem comes when the overwhelmingly London-based media (and it’s a bias getting worse) looks around itself and thinks that London is representative of the UK in total. Of course this applies to all sorts of subtler things than racial balance, but the real problem is metropolitanism rather than some form of political correctness.

  41. @DrasticPlastic,

    As one of the police that the public don’t trust (anymore – apparently there was a time when police were nice and honest – the 1970s?), I agree with you in some ways. There is a definite culture of indirect manipulation of information in the police. Traditionally there has always been pressure, for example, to treat robbery as “assault and theft” or burglary as “theft on premises”. Of course, if someone is arrested and there may be a “clear up” then the pressure works in the opposite direction. Why caution someone for theft when you can squeeze a burglary clear-up out of it?

    But I think your anger at the police is also a little prone to exaggeration. The police don’t “ignore” burglary. If you report one, they will record it and assess whether there is realistically anything that can be done to solve it. If there are no policemen on the beat, it is extremely unlikely to be due to an arrest of someone with a sandwich board (and in any event, the idea that having “police on the beat” is a panacea for crime is a bit mistaken in the first place).

    The odds are that whoever burgled you has appeared in court for another crime at some point in the previous couple of years, so it is not all the police’s responsibility in any event.

    The most justifiable criticism of the police is that we are simply not all that good at our jobs, rather than that we are particularly dishonest whilst doing them. If all officers were as good as the best are, massive strides could be made. But that is pretty much true of every profession and every industry. Sadly, recent changes to police pay and conditions (in particular the reduction in starting salary to supermarket levels) are unlikely to help.

  42. “There is a definite culture of indirect manipulation of information in the police.”

    And direct manipulation of the facts. Let’s hope Bettison going changes that.

  43. Neil A – yeah, but we don’t use your stinky reported crime figures anyway. The British Crime Survey is where it’s at ;)

  44. @AW.

    Do you know whether they were counting whether the live birth / abortion happened at under 16, or whether the estimated date of conception happened at under 16?

    If it’s the former then they are probably excluding getting on for half of all 15 year olds who “fall pregnant”.

    A good example of why statistics need careful digestion.


    I suppose “Is it?” essentially comes down to a subjective assessment of to what extent underage pregnancy is a problem.

    As a parent, a 1 in 56 chance that your daughter will have given birth to or aborted a baby by the time she has reached the age of consent seems pretty high to me. If you have two girls (like me) then that’s a 1 in 28 chance.

    Of course, those are overall figures. The much lower rates in some areas / classes will be balanced by much higher rates in others. In Plymouth and Torquay it is considered a serious problem.

  45. Neil A – girls who were 13-15 at the time of conception according to MORI’s citation of the ONS data.

  46. Thanks AW

  47. I’ve got two daughters but one of them is now 16 and the other is 10…does that mean the 10 year old is statistically more likely to get pregnant under 16 as the older one didn’t?

  48. No, as I hope you know!

  49. This is running in the Telegraph, and the comments are hilarious – they seem to take it as an assault on their world view.
    Pity it’s not in the Daily Mail.

  50. Robin Friday

    Go on then. How much tax DO “the rich” pay?

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