Muslims, benefits and teenage pregnancies: the perils of perception

The scale of our collective error is startling, as a new survey by Ipsos MORI shows.

People are wildly wrong when we ask them about many aspects of life in Britain. It’s perfectly understandable that we don’t having a precise image of who lives here and the extent of key social issues - but the scale of our collective error is startling, as highlighted in a new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London. 

Just to pick out three: 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% are aged 65+ - when in fact only 16% are.

We also have an extraordinary view of the extent of teenage pregnancy: the average guess of how many girls under the age of 16 get pregnant each year is 15%, whereas the best estimate of the actual figure is well under 1%.  And many people are even further out: one in fifteen 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. 

We’re also wildly wrong on what the government spends our money on, and what will save the most.  For example, as we often find, 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. 

Not surprisingly then, people are just as wrong on the relative impact of different benefit cuts.  From our list, the one that people think would save the most is capping benefits so that no household receives more than £26,000 per year.  This in fact saves a relatively modest £290m per year. Another item on our list – raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women – saves 17 times as much (£5bn), but people were twice as likely to think the household benefit cap saves the most.

The biggest single error in our 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. 

But this points to one of the key findings from the survey: when we ask people what they were thinking of as benefit fraud when they guessed at its scale, they select items that would never be counted as actual fraud: in people’s minds, it includes claimants not having paid tax in the past and people having children so they can claim more benefits. 

So we shouldn’t dismiss these estimates as worthless because they are so wildly wrong – they are often just measuring something different. It’s true that they reflect problems with statistical literacy: people really struggle with very large and very small numbers, they find it hard to distinguish between rates and levels, they take a long time and repeated exposure to notice change. Reflecting this, we see sharp differences between how wrong different groups are, particularly depending on education levels. 

It’s also true that our misperceptions reflect media treatment of issues and the political discourse, where, naturally, the focus is often on vivid anecdotes and less on the hard figures or scale of an issue.  This is no accident, and to a large extent we get what we ask for: we admit ourselves that we base our views more on personal experience and anecdote than hard facts.

But our misperceptions also reflect our concerns – and this is why any number of "myth-busting" exercises are bound to flounder. Our exaggerated estimates are at least as much an effect as a cause of our concerns. Academics call this "emotional innumeracy": we’re making a point about what’s worrying us, whether we know it or not. 

We also shouldn’t view our over-estimates as inevitable: reducing misunderstanding is still important. We need to continue to focus on statistical literacy and people’s confidence to challenge a figure or a story, through education that starts in schools.  We need bodies like the UK Statistics Authority to continue to challenge the misuse of statistics.

But we also need to accept that people are more like Einstein than their answers to our survey might lead us to believe: as he said, if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. Many of us do. 

Bobby Duffy is manging director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and visiting senior fellow, King’s College London

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society

Muslim men pray before Iftar, the evening meal in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the London Muslim Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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