A British social scientist analyzes how we see the world—and why we’re so often wrong about it.
In this striking debut, Duffy (Director, Policy Institute/King’s Coll. London) draws on global studies conducted by Ipsos MORI, a London social research firm where he was a managing director for 20 years, to describe the way people misperceive social realities, from teen pregnancy to crime, obesity, and immigration. The studies involved more than 100,000 interviews on many issues in 40 nations. They demonstrate, through solid data, that we only hear what we want to hear. In England, asked what percentage of British teens gave birth every year, people guessed 19% (correct answer: 1.4%). In France, people thought Muslims were 31% of the population (reality: 8%). In the U.S., people guessed immigrants make up 33% of the population (reality: 14%). And so on. “Our misperceptions are wide, deep, and long-standing,” writes the author. Complex forces shape beliefs, most notably our emotional responses, which are key to our perception of reality. Driven by “preexisting beliefs and wishful thinking,” our delusions are formed by “hardwired” biases and a tendency to seek information that reinforces our views. The latter includes news media whose penchant for negative stories leads many to think “everything is getting worse.” “We not only have a built-in bias towards focusing on the vivid and threatening, we also tend to think things were better in the past, and therefore are worse now,” writes Duffy, echoing Steven Pinker’s argument in Enlightenment Now (2018). As a result, we are often “very wrong” about global trends. The author depressingly notes that it is “difficult to change people’s delusions simply by giving them more information.” There is no magic formula for encouraging more accurate perceptions, he writes; increased skepticism and awareness of our emotional thinking can help.
An informative and readable guide to rational thinking in the present era.