When someone makes the claim that most of us are wrong about practically everything that counts, you’ve got to wonder what they’re referring to exactly and why. And that’s why I wanted to read this book.
This book basically talks about society’s many misperceptions about the world we live in and the issues we face by comparing them with actual figures, taken from various IPSOS surveys.
The various topics covered include health, sexual behaviour, political misdirection, and several topics pertinent to the time frame in which the book was published. The book was published in 2018 and is intended for a British audience. So much of what is covered are things that were particularly in public mind at the time, such as the on-going rise in immigration, the surprising rise of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote.
I have to say I really learnt a lot from this book. It was dense with key takeaways.
Many of the revelations presented in the book didn’t surprise me. Here’s a summary:
- We have one for being overweight epidemic rather than an obesity one, and this is more serious than we realise
- We over-estimate the proportion of teenage pregnancies
- We generally assume there are more immigrants in their country than there actually are
- We generally tend to assuming crime rates are rising even when they are falling
- We overestimate the proportion of unemployed
But, what intrigued me the most about the content of the book was not so much the extent to which we misjudge various things, but the ways in which we can be deceived, and continue to remain deceived.
Here follows a mishmash of quotes I have put together from the book where I have slightly tweaked the wording:
“There exists within society a spectrum of false belief from ignorance to misperception.
We’re all subject to personal biases and external influences on our thinking that can distort our view of reality. We focus on negative information, have a susceptibility to stereotyping and we like to imitate the majority.
What’s more, our brains handle negative information differently and store it more readily and accessibly. Then there’s how we’re also social animals, and we tend to imitate the majority.
And what we think is the ‘social norm’ can have a profound effect on how we ourselves act, even when our understanding of that norm is hopelessly misguided.
What we get wrong is as much about how we think as what we’re told, and as Fraser Nelson once said ‘Amid’ is a word beloved by fake news websites, to conflate correlation and causation. UK crime is also up ‘amid’ spread of fidget spinners.
The predictable isn’t newsworthy, so we get the media we deserve and, to some extent, crave.
People rank tornadoes (which kill dozens of Americans a year) as more dangerous than asthma (which kills thousands), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.’
Then when our view of what’s real is being shaped by algorithmic programs and our own selection of social media individuals and groups to follow, our filter bubble becomes something of an ‘echo chamber’ and we only hear ourselves and what we want to hear, while the consistency of what we see, determines what we believe.
Stephen Colbert is quoted as saying ‘Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty…What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?’
But, What Can We Do?
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to deal with our misperceptions: they are so widespread and long-standing because they are often built into how we think. But there are real practical things we can do..
We respond more to emotion than facts. But fact-checking is important. We can learn to accept the emotion, but challenge the thought.
We don’t need to give up on facts in order to admit that emotions are important. We should cultivate scepticism for sure, but not necessarily cynicism.
A better understanding of our foibles doesn’t mean we’re slaves to them. We can learn a lot by understanding why we’re so often so wrong.”
Over 30% of the tome is dedicated to acknowledgements, references and an index, and as such it has the sort of evidenced-based backing that you’d expect from an academic work.
But it’s most definitely written for the layman. For example, the author pens his introduction by talking about how he hated psychology class, and how it’s ironic that he ended up studying our misperceptions about the world.
Occasionally there are less familiar terms thrown in there, but this jargon is always fully spelled out.
The book introduced me to many interesting new terms and concepts, such as emotional innumeracy, social desirability bias, cognitive dissonance, directionally motivated reasoning, pluralistic ignorance, illusory truth effect, fluency heuristic, false consensus effect, rational ignorance, illusory superiority bias and more.
I would argue that this book is an important one for anyone who wants to examine the causes of misperceptions, so that they can learn from them accordingly, and instil the importance of fact checking before reacting negatively to what they see and hear.
Book Review from Cari Mayhew