What you see is all there is

How much do you know about the country you live in?

For all the rhetoric about immigration that currently dominates the news agenda, do you know how many immigrants there really are in the country?

Russell Brand is running around urging us all not to vote, but do you know what proportion of the electorate actually voted in the last general election?

These and other questions like them were included in a fascinating study conducted last year by IPSOS-MORI in an effort to understand how closely people’s perceptions match reality.

Before you look at the results why not take the quiz yourself, by clicking on this link.

How well did you do?  Don’t worry if your estimates were way off, the study’s title ‘Perils of Perception’ should give you a clue as to how well most people fared.

What I find fascinating though isn’t that most people have a distorted view of the key issues, but that when confronted with the truth they still refuse to believe it.

On immigration, for example, when told the actual figure is actually much lower than they first thought, respondents either flatly refuted the official figure or defended their answer based on the evidence of their own eyes:

IPSOS-MORI Immigration

Coming to incorrect conclusions based on limited evidence is of course a common problem.  As far as our intuitive mind is concerned perception is indeed reality –  ‘What You See Is All There Is’, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his behavioural economics bestseller Thinking, Fast & Slow.

This perception bias is equally true of people who work in advertising as it is of everybody else.

As Thinkbox found in 2013, most people’s estimates of UK media consumption are wide of the mark, but people who work in advertising are in most cases even further out than “normal people” on what is supposed to be their specialist subject!

Why are advertising professionals getting it so wrong?

Is it because they spend such a high proportion of their time looking at new media opportunities that they assume they carry greater weight with the wider population than they really do?

Or is it simply that advertising folk – most of whom live and work in London – just aren’t representative of the UK population?

Would it improve the ad industry if more ad agencies upped sticks to other parts of the country?

Certainly it might persuade more cash-strapped young grads to join the industry.  And spending more time outside London might help planners understand the ‘real world’ better.

However, proximity doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy.

For example, advancements in the use of technology in ethnographic research mean that geography shouldn’t be a barrier to understanding different types of people.

We can’t change the way our brains work, but we can make a conscious effort to overcome these instinctive biases in order to produce more impactful and effective work.

Firstly we must find a balance between constantly innovating and testing new opportunities that might give clients a competitive advantage over their peers, whilst ensuring we don’t neglect the reality of what works in the here and now.

Secondly it’s not about where we’re based geographically, it’s about remembering that other people’s reality may differ from our own, and constantly seeking to understand and empathise with the way people think and act.


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