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Perceptions are not reality

July 17, 2013 at 8:24 AM

A survey published on 9 July by Ipsos Mori reveals that the scale of the British public's perception of reality is astonishingly wrong when it comes to teenage girls pregnancy, immigration, benefits, foreign aid and more. 

On average, we think 24% of the population are Muslims – when the real figure is around 5%; we think 31% are immigrants – when the official figure is 13%; and we think 36% of the British population are aged 65+ - when in fact only 16% are.

Here's another one for a reality check; on average we think teenage pregancy is 25 times higher than official estimates. We think that 15% of girls under the age of 16 get pregnant each year when official figures are around 0.6%.

"We’re also wildly wrong on what the government spends our money on, and what will save the most.  For example, [the survey shows that] people grossly overestimate the amount that is spent on foreign aid: a quarter of us think it is one of the 2-3 things government spends the most money on, when it is actually only around 1% of expenditure.  More people pick foreign aid as top item of expenditure than state pensions – but we spend nearly 10 times as much on pensions than aid".

The biggest single error in the survey is on the scale of benefit fraud: people think that out of every £100 spend on benefits, £24 is claimed fraudulently, when the best government estimate is that it’s actually only around 70p. Interestingly, people, when thinking of benefit fraud, selected items that would never counted as "proper" fraud for instance, having children to claim more benefits or not having paid tax in the past.

So why the wrong perception, why is it important, somewhow, to grossly exagerate reality? Ipsos suggests that sensitive issues such as teenage girls pregnancy, immigration, benefit fraud, etc do strike a chord with the public. Our emotional response, our personal beliefs make us see these issues bigger or worse than they really are. The problem may also be exacerbated by some TV programmes and the media. Think daily programmes about teenage pregnancy and this could start explaining why 1 in 15 of the general public think 40% or more of young teenage girls get pregnant each year; that would be at least 12 girls in an average all-girl class of 30. 

The problem is that this situation creates a gap between the public and politicians. For example, we think that 31% of the population are immigrants when official figures (even taking into account illegal immigration) are close to 15% therefore, when we hear about new government policies or programmes to help immigrants settle in the UK we say it's an outrage to spend so much money on so many people. 

In the words of Einstein, if the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.

Tell us what your views are, where you surprised by some of these figures? 

Tags: teenage pregnancy immigration benefit fraud

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