A new survey from Ipsos Mori reveals that the public in 38 countries have deeply inaccurate views about crime, terrorism and many other important social issues. And this is not just the result of random guessing – there is a systematic pattern to our errors. We tend to think things are worse than they are, and they’re going downhill fast.
The Perils of Perception study found that only 7% of people think the murder rate is lower in their country than it was in 2000 – but it is actually significantly down in most countries, and, across the countries overall, it’s down 29%.
Only 19% think deaths from terrorist attacks are lower in the past 15 years than they were in the 15 years before that – when they are also significantly down across most of these countries, and overall they are around half the level they were.
People hugely overestimate the proportion of prisoners in their countries who are immigrants: the average guess is 28% when it’s actually only 15%.
Teenage pregnancy is overestimated across the world, often by a staggering amount. Overall, the average guess is that 20% of teenage girls give birth each year when the reality is 2%. Some countries guess that around half of teenage girls give birth each year, when the highest actual figure in any country is 6.7%.
Why do we get it so wrong?
There are multiple reasons for these errors – from our struggle with basic maths, to our “fast thinking” mental shortcuts and biases.
But there is one key explanation. We overestimate what we worry about: the more we see coverage of an issue, the more prevalent we think it is, especially if that coverage is vivid and threatening.
We treat negative information differently from positive information, and there is an evolutionary element to this. Negative information is usually more urgent, even life-threatening, so we need to act on it: we had to take note when we were warned by our fellow cavemen about a lurking sabre-toothed tiger (and those who didn’t were edited out of the gene pool).
So, our brains handle negative information differently and store it more accessibly. There are a number of experimental psychology examples to prove this, and scientists have even found signs of it in rats. Losing money, being abandoned by friends and receiving criticism all have a greater impact on us than winning money, making friends or receiving praise.
And this stems from the very basics of our brain functioning. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist professor, showed pictures known to arouse positive feelings, like pizza or Ferraris, and those that stir up negative feelings, like a mutilated face or dead cat – and recorded electrical activity in the brain. And the brain reacted more strongly to negative images.
Negative information is attention-grabbing, while positive progress is gradual and incremental. We’re not nearly as adept at spotting these trends as sudden and eye-catching disasters. As Max Roser from Oxford University points out, newspapers could have legitimately run the headline “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday” every day for past 25 years. But the predictable isn’t newsworthy, because it’s not what we want as media consumers.
It’s very quick work to find a recent example of a screaming headline or a poignant talk-show interview in which the plight of “gym slip mums” is dissected. Unfortunately, for our mental image of teen girls everywhere, you don’t see pictures of a young girl in her school uniform not holding a baby with the headline: “Yet another teenager just gets on with stuff after not giving birth.”
Looking on the bright side
There has been a flurry of interest recently in the “new optimist” trend, where a disparate group are pointing to progress made and a brighter future. And it’s caused some suspicion: given the very real issues the world faces, this focus on the positive can seem like gloss.
But, from our long-term study of how people actually see social realities, this is much less of a risk than the opposite – our tendency to focus on the negative, and feel overwhelmed by the sense that nothing can be done. Paul Slovic, another psychologist, has studied “psychic numbing” for decades, where the scale of tragedies or need for help drive us to inaction. One of the key lessons from this work was that we’re much more likely to help the individual than the masses, and this has been proven time and again in fundraising campaigns: the single real-life story, with a named individual, constructed to evoke maximum sadness, helps us connect and donate.
But the same mechanism that turns us off the need to deal with not just one case of poverty but millions, also affects our belief that big challenges can be tackled at all. So, a lot of the criticism of the “new optimist” perspective misses the point, by questioning whether we should really be so content about what has been achieved. As this survey shows, the real issue is the opposite: the greater need is to encourage action by countering the sense that all is already lost.
Bobby Duffy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.