The perils of perception

Bobby Duffy / Sep 2018

Image: Shutterstock


The huge gaps between our perceptions and reality is becoming one of the most pressing political challenges of our time. This is not just driven by the dodgy campaign messages and “alternative facts” that Brexit and President Trump have brought to the fore. In just about every country in Europe, and many around the world, there has been an increase in deeply tribal and polarised claims that have little connection to reality, on everything from immigration levels, trends in murder rates, vaccine safety and the role of the EU.

These gaps are the subject of my newly published book on The Perils of Perception, which is based on over 100,000 interviews in up to 40 countries – and outlines what we get wrong, why and what we can do about it.  

Our errors are often extraordinary. Italians think that 26% of their population are immigrants, when the reality is around 8%. The French think 30% of their population are Muslim, when it’s also around 8%. Across over 30 countries, only 15% of people think their national murder rate is down since 2000, when it is actually down substantially in the vast majority.

The temptation is to cry ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, blaming our increasingly sensationalist media, social media and tribal politicians. But that’s not the whole story, it’s partly about how we think, our own deep-seated biases.

One of the most important is how we’re naturally drawn to negative information. There is an evolutionary element to this. Negative information tends to be more urgent, even life-threatening: we needed to take note when we were warned by our fellow cavepeople about a lurking sabre-toothed tiger (and those who didn’t were edited out of the gene pool).

Our brains handle negative information differently and store it more accessibly, as shown in many other experiments that track electrical activity in subjects’ brains. We react more strongly to negative images, like mutilated faces or dead cats, and process them with different intensity in different parts of the brain.

This doesn’t mean the media play no role in twisting our perceptions – just that we to some extent get the media our brains demand.

But it’s also true that we are living in particularly dangerous times for a reality-based view of the world.

The way we consume information has changed beyond recognition. We are able to filter and tailor what we see in a way never before known – and unseen algorithms do it on our behalf too. This plays on another of our most fundamental psychological quirks: confirmation bias. We want ‘facts’ that confirm our already held views, and actively avoid or discredit information that questions those views. It’s correct that surveillance is the business model behind our apparently free internet – but that makes our confirmation bias its currency.

Facebook’s own experiments show that when they mix up our feeds with contrary views, we spend less time on the platform, and so they make less money from us: giving us what we want is at the very core our new information system.

So what can we do?

The first point is to hold on to the importance and power of a shared understanding of facts, with all the energy we can. Eye-catching studies suggest that giving people the correct information can backfire and reinforce their misperceptions. But just as many studies show that most people are willing to listen, and shift their views, particularly when we can get in first, and not just correct after the (fake) fact. We are not all automatons, slaves to our tribal beliefs.

At a more personal level, our starting point should be to think that things are better than our initial instincts suggest. Hans Rosling and the Gapminder Foundation have made this point brilliantly on global issues like extreme poverty – but the same applies to myriad domestic concerns.

There is criticism of this more positive perspective, questioning whether we should really be so content about what has been achieved. But as our misperception studies show time and again, the real danger is the opposite. We need to counter the sense that all is already lost, because some sense of hope and efficacy is important to encourage further action – and a vital defence against extremists who say things are so bad we need to rip it all up.

This is not the same as saying that everything is perfect, or we couldn’t have done more. But we need to be deeply suspicious of those playing on our biases to undermine our hold on reality and convince us everything has gone wrong.


Bobby Duffy

Bobby Duffy

September 2018

About this author ︎►