Cheer up: It’s better than you think

The public are hugely prejudiced against good news and grossly overestimate the rate of crime, immigration and teenage pregnancy in Britain, major new research shows.

An Ipsos Mori poll, conducted with the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, provides an eye-opening account of the gap between public perceptions and the reality of life in the UK.

"Our data poses real challenges for policymakers," said Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society.

"Politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. And the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise."

Some of the gaps between belief and reality highlighted in the report included:

•         Teenage pregnancy: on average, the public thinks teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates. People believe that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.

•         Crime: Fifty-eight per cent of people do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19% lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53% lower than in 1995. Fifty-one per cent think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under two million in 2012.

•         Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates. The public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.

•         Immigration and ethnicity: The public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%.

•         Voting: the public underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% actually did.

Researched pinned much of the blame for poor understanding of statistics on the media, which is prone to focus on 'outliers' – results which are at the unrepresentative top end of a statistical trend – rather than more common cases.

But politicians have also been given a slap on the wrist for misuse of statistics.

Protest group Disabled People Against Cuts has collected 35 major misuses of statistics by the government since 2010, almost half of them from Iain Duncan Smith's Department for Work and Pensions.