Public Misperceptions

Critical for a functioning democracy and public engagement is citizens’ understanding of politics and policies, along with general knowledge about their country’s current situation. A set of agreed-upon facts provides common ground for citizens and allows for an adequate level of political participation. However, Bobby Duffy’s recent book, “The Perils of Perception”, shows that the level of misperception of facts is very high for almost any context or topic. This is not simply ignorance, but rather biased understanding coming from the way we think. The author states that people have their algorithms and internal selection biases, which create individual realities, especially with regard to emotionally charged topics, such as obesity, vaccination, and immigration. Studies show that providing numbers to support the facts does not always help and often has a contrary effect – people become even more convinced of the wrong answer than they were before. This creates problems for evidence-based policy and public support for research and innovation in Europe. Misinformed citizens behave very differently from those who are uninformed. An uninformed citizen usually recognizes when they are lacking information and can search for accurate information. On the other hand, misinformed citizens pose a risk because their political opinions are based on things that are not true, and they can subsequently convince others of the veracity of these untruths, resisting any ideas that run contrary to what they believe.

What are the “Perils of Perception” and how can we manage them?

While misinformation refers to false information, misperception refers to false beliefs. The “Perils of Perception” prove that people tend to underestimate or overestimate certain facts depending on what emotions they have about it. For example, when asking the question “Out of every 100 people in your country, about how many are Muslim?”, people in European countries tend to overestimate this number. In France the average guess is 31%, while the reality is only 7.5%. We find the opposite with obesity levels, which people tend to underestimate. For example, when asked, “Out of every 100 people aged 20 years or over in your country, how many do you think are either overweight or obese?” people in Spain replied on average 38%, while the real number is 58%.

In explaining this, Bobby Duffy refers to Daniel Kahneman, who identified two types of thinking “System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious. System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.”  He suggests that one of the reasons for misperception is that we have a tendency to default to the emotional “fast-thinking” (System 1), but we can train the slower, deliberative thinking system (System 2) not to trust the first one, by slowing down and making sure our perceptions are fact-based and not emotion-based. For example, it is pointless to deny that we have an emotional reaction to immigration (whether positive or negative). But we can accept that we have these emotions and try to understand them. The next step is more difficult – to activate system 2, the one that does more reflective thinking. It is not that people need to know a series of numbers and statistics by heart, but rather they need to possess tools for more profound critical thinking if we are to have a more effective citizenry.

One tool to deal with public misperception is fact checking, by providing real facts and numbers. Fact-checking is increasingly about getting in first, building fact-checking into the system and stopping disinformation before it starts. Duffy suggests that it is important to invest in these approaches with at least as much commitment and ingenuity as those who are developing tools and content to spread disinformation. He also points out that we should not focus only on the numbers, but also on the stories. Stories do not run counter to facts, and actually are a good complement to them, as they have more power to engage people. In line with this, COCTEAU will deal with the problem of public misperception. The project will use fact-checking to reduce the level of misperception on relevant policy issues, where the level of misperception is high, by first asking people what their opinion is and then providing the facts and numbers on that topic. To accomplish this, both online and offline methods will be used; while online methods are simpler to organize and can cover more participants, physical interaction is also important, and so offline events will be organized as well. People’s opinions develop as they hear more evidence; they are indeed willing to listen and even ready to change their minds. There is no one formula to deal with misperceptions, but COCTEAU will attempt to bring people together, open a dialogue and provide fact-based information in order to reduce the level of misperceptions.