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.

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Róisín Meets...Dawn O'Porter