Our dystopian view of Ireland

We think of ourselves as rational, but we’re susceptible to error and bias

Sun, Dec 1, 2013, 08:00

If this were the Leaving Cert, the questions in this week’s “Irish Times”/ MRBI poll would make it a “hard paper”. Apart from policy wonks and avid consumers of official reports, I suspect most of us would struggle to give completely accurate answers.

But this survey is not just a test of public knowledge. If respondents did not know the answer, they were allowed to guess. And when people guess, they reveal a lot about their mindset and how they view the world around them. So the interesting thing about this survey is the pattern or bias of the wrong answers and what might accou nt for that.

The results of the survey show that nearly half of the poll respondents believe that, compared to public servants or welfare recipients, politicians receive the most from the public purse. The reality is dramatically different.

Similarly, our perception of who gets the biggest portion of the welfare budget is at odds with reality. We believe that unemployed people top the list by a huge margin, with pensioners and people receiving child benefit getting roughly the same proportion. The reality is that pensioners receive the most, followed by unemployed people, with those in receipt of child benefit receiving a third of what pensioners do.

Furthermore, we believe that the top 10 per cent of earners, who feature regularly in political debates, earn an average salary of €153,000 – double what they actually earn – and that they pay only 28 per cent of the total income-tax intake when in reality they pay more than double that: 59 per cent.

We believe that the 2013 UN Human Development Index that ranks countries in terms of wealth, health, education, happiness and safety puts Ireland in 35th place. The fact is we rank seventh.

To complete this rather dystopian view of Ireland as a place to live, the majority also believe that the number of medical cards issued has decreased, that hospital waiting lists have increased and that the crime and murder rates have risen. Not true either.

We also think the country is changing more rapidly than it actually is. We believe we are losing our faith faster than we are, that the number of foreign nationals living here is double the real number, and that we are all logging into Facebook and Twitter daily.

So why are we so poorly informed, particularly about matters of such civic importance? The print and broadcast media have, of course, a powerful shaping influence on how our perceptions of public affairs are shaped. Bad news is reported more frequently, and generally with more drama and emotion, than good news. When good news is reported, it is usually with considerably less relish – except, of course, sports coverage. The media defend this policy with the not unreasonable argument that bad news interests us more than good news. That is true.

The human brain is wired to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive, as anything that arouses negative emotions is perceived as a signal of threat or possible threat to our interests, so the negative carries more impact and remains in our minds longer.

Moreover, the more a news item arouses very strong emotions of any kind – in particular, anger, fear and empathy – the more vividly it is committed to memory. That is why individual stories and personal accounts have more impact than cold facts.

However, the problem with relying too much on that kind of individualised testimony is that it can significantly distort the audience’s perception of reality, particularly how frequent this experience is – for example, being a victim of crime – or the probability of it happening to you.

So how should news about issues of public concern be reported? We know from studies of reporting styles that a better outcome – vivid and persuasive reporting combined with accurate information – can be achieved by adopting a very particular format.

It means setting out the facts about an issue in a general way, then illustrating in vivid case histories or stories about how particular individuals or groups are affected and, crucially, clarifying what proportion of that population each case history represents. That way, you know if particular groups are suffering or thriving under a particular policy but you also have a general sense of how the policy is working.

But the way the media reports public affairs is only a part, although a vital part, of how perceptions are formed. Much as we like to believe that we are rational beings, our thinking is susceptible to a whole host of systematic errors and biases that leak into the way we perceive, interpret and judge reality.

In times of economic adversity and uncertainty, our thinking is more affected by these biases and so we are even more likely to be wrong.

For example, we see and selectively remember what we expect or want to see. We pay significantly more attention and assign more weight to any information that conforms to what we already believe, and ignore contradictory evidence or explain it away.

We put disproportionate emphasis on whatever draws our attention; for example, a particularly lively protest or lobbying campaign. And of course attention is more rapidly and effectively captured by something that arouses strong emotions than by dry facts.

We are far more preoccupied by loss or change, real or perceived, than we are by a similar gain or things staying the same. And to compound that, when we are faced with a proposed change, we exaggerate its impact or possible impact on us, particularly its negative impact, than generally turns out to be the case.

These biases, which are also shared by the human beings who work in the media, undoubtedly affect how stories are reported and remembered and therefore they also affect the answers in this survey. But precisely because of the way these biases work, the wrong answers also reveal indirectly what we expect and believe to be true in general and what arouses strongest emotions.

From that perspective, the pattern of wrong answers suggests that the current Irish mindset is one of low trust in politicians and that is what riles us most.

We expect and believe that politicians are creaming off the public purse, that public services are getting worse and that the tax system is less progressive and distributive than it is.

The great crusading US journalist Sam McClure said that the vitality of a democracy depends on “popular knowledge of complex issues”. More accurate and balanced reporting that is richer in contextual and comparative detail would undoubtedly help to correct some perceptions.

So would a realisation that we are just as susceptible to groupthink and prevailing media narratives now as we were during the Celtic Tiger era. In public debates, when facts do not fit, they are often ignored and the repetition of false facts is let pass and go unchallenged.

But that is only part of the solution. I suspect no amount of facts will correct the perception of politicians and how we are being governed, because it reflects a more general and alarmingly low level of trust in politics. Last year, when asked in the “Irish Times”/Ipsos/MRBI poll whom they trusted, Irish politicians came bottom of the pile at 17 per cent and Ministers did little better at 18 per cent.

This lack of trust in politics is routinely dismissed by politicians as mid-term blues or the newly discovered disorder named austerity fatigue, a result of having to deliver bad news and administer strong medicine to cure economic ills. And while that is undoubtedly part of the explanation, it is far from the full story.

Low trust in politics and how we are governed is not cost-free. Trust is at the heart of a well-functioning democracy. It underpins the social contract that asks people to pay taxes, obey the law and consent to be governed because they trust their investment will build the common good that will benefit them.

Without trust there is no true solidarity or reciprocity. And without that, there is no true republic. How concerned politicians are about the issue of low trust, how willing they are to actively address it, or even how aware they are of what needs to be done to rebuild trust in the political endeavour, are questions worth asking.

Maureen Gaffney is adjunct professor of psychology and society at UCD

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