Apparently, as a nation, we massively over-estimate the scale of problems across a range of key social issues, from the number of teenage pregnancies and immigrants in the US, to spending on jobseekers allowance, crime levels and the foreign aid budget.
Indeed, we over-estimate the level of benefit fraud in the UK by a factor of 34 – which is not only quite impressive, but confirms the thrust of my recent magnum opus on collective self-delusion. How smug do I feel?
Exactly how accurate a picture this study creates, though, is difficult to gauge given that it’s based on a survey of just 1,015 adults across Great Britain, conducted over five days last month with the “data weighted to match the profile of the population”.
Nevertheless, the study is interesting both because of what it uncovers – a wide perception gap – and because of what it doesn’t. For instance, if we can agree that awareness of immigration is blown out of all proportion, then what about those issues which are arguably more immediately threatening to our livelihoods, standards of living and quality of life, such as our unstable, over-financialised society that increasingly turns us into debt slaves?
Immigration and EU membership
This research does not touch such territory at all, which is a shame as the responses would surely have provided some insightful comparisons. Perhaps the research sponsors believe the protection and enrichment of an elite at the expense of everyone else isn’t something to get all het up about. But whether they do or not, the focus on attitudes to immigration and our membership of the European Union only tells half the story, if that.
As a journalist myself, I don’t know whether my compatriots and their proprietors would be proud to be part of a trade that is for ever cloaking its readers, listeners and viewers in a make-believe world of unrealistic expectations, heroes and villains, dysfunctional inadequates, and sexual predators and targets. But then, the truth has always been an inconvenient diversion from breaking a great story.
Talking about his time as editor of The Sun, David Yelland has said he was “paid to be angry”, suggesting his role was to use Britain’s soaraway redtop as a cattle prod to repeatedly poke its readers into an impotent rage over things which didn’t exist or happen. Perhaps that’s what a free press is for.
Or, perhaps, if communicating the truth is the measure by which they should be judged, we should simply charge the journalists and editors with incompetence. One might have thought that public awareness is quite important to the healthy functioning of a modern democracy, but few in either the media, the world of politics or social research industries will be taking that particular question up any time soon.
Bad news. More bad news
In fairness to the media, it is not anywhere near entirely to blame for the nation’s reality deficit. The way humans process information means the whole communication thing is flawed, regardless of how ethical or truthful our guardians of the news are. Bad news has much more impact on us than good news, and the human memory gives negative experiences much greater weight than positive.
What this means is we can’t ever expect an exact match between reality and public perceptions. As pesky humans, we also want and need to be entertained, which a story exploring the esoteric trade in collateralised debt obligations, for instance, probably won’t achieve, especially given its apparent remoteness from most ordinary people’s lives.
Ultimately, we are non-rational, emotional beings that believe who and what we want to believe.
And this is the crunch issue: when faced with the everyday grind of modern living, unearthing the complexities of how we’re going to hell in a handbasket probably doesn’t count as the nation’s favourite leisure activity. The majority probably simply prefer to be spoon-fed their views on who are the heroes and villains by the particular outlet they feel most comfortable with to.
Apathetic and disengaged
Most of us just want a relatively quiet life which, as financial analyst Reggie Middleton of the Boom Bust Blog, would say, renders most of us otherwise apathetic and disengaged about the complicated, conspiratorial stuff that’s hidden from view.
Consequently, the scapegoats will remain scapegoated, while those who landed us in this mess continue to escape any serious sanction at all. Unless the government follows through on its recent threat to imprison the errant bankers, that is.
Or, perhaps more likely, we are plunged into a renewed financial crash that finally wakes the middle classes from their slumber.