Test your perceptions

14 Sep 2018  |  Michaela Jefferson 
Test your perceptions

A new book reveals why we're wrong about almost everything - and how we can get a better hold of reality. Michaela Jefferson meets the author to find out what advertisers could learn

Though you might try, you can’t be an expert in everything. Where our knowledge wanes, we absorb information from around us and form a perceived reality, complete with assumptions about how much it must cost to raise a child, the extent of the teen pregnancy epidemic, and which breeds of dog we should be wary of.

However, as Mediatel found out, our perceived reality rarely matches up with the real one.

In his new book, The Perils of Perception, Bobby Duffy, chairman of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, reveals just how tenuous our hold on reality is - and there are some valuable lessons for the media and advertising industry too.

The media plays a huge part in influencing our perceptions, Duffy tells Mediatel, particularly when it comes to issues we’re not personally familiar with.

Take teenage pregnancy: when asked to estimate the percentage of teenage girls aged 15-19 that give birth in Britain each year, the average British guess was 19%. The correct answer was just 1.4%.

Duffy explained that, whilst few of us know many teenage girls, we’ve all seen photographs of pregnant teens in their school uniforms. As such, the media has great power over cultural perceptions and, in honing in on the negative to create stories, can cause its audience to perceive the world as a darker place than it truly is.

“However, we need to be really careful with simplistic media bashing, because ultimately we get the media that we crave,” Duffy says.

“This is driven by how human brains work. The media is providing the stories and content that we want – that’s their job.”

According to Duffy, our brains are wired to focus on negative information, drawing our attention in a way that positive information just doesn’t.

“That’s not sensationalist – that’s an evolutionary trait. In our cave people days, negative information was often more urgent and had to be acted on,” he says.

It would have been fairly important to remember gossip about a saber-tooth tiger lurking nearby, for instance.

Human brains also significantly prioritise the emotional over the rational, and that means that emotionally driven stories tend to be far more engaging than facts and statistics.

But that doesn’t mean letting the media off the hook.

“The media do have a massive responsibility in shaping what people think and how people think about different things. They have a responsibility to reflect reality - possibly even more so where our own experience is limited and the media's impact is therefore greater," Duffy says.

It’s difficult, however, for media companies to present a more balanced perspective. Studies have shown that we suffer from confirmation bias, where we are drawn to and focus on information that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs, and tend to ignore contrary information where it disagrees with our worldview.

Furthermore, Duffy says, “the technology and media environment we’re in makes that possible at a scale we just didn’t have before.”

Duffy argues that the current environment is more dangerous to our perceptions now than it ever has been, largely due to the growth of social media and our ability to filter and tailor our own worldview, often with the assistance of unseen algorithms.

“We have lots of individual realities being built,” he says.

So, what can be done?

In his book, Duffy argues that, for the most part, “we’ll only get so far trying to correct normal people’s misperceptions solely with more facts, because doing so misdiagnoses a chunk of the underlying condition, which is more emotional and more tied up with our sense of identity.”

If we want to shift someone’s opinion, we need to provide vivid stories alongside facts, he says.

Considering the mass reach and ability to directly target consumers’ emotions, it’s easy to wonder whether there may be an opportunity for advertisers to help improve our perceptions, simultaneously having a positive effect on society and creating memorable, effective campaigns.

Duffy thinks there is, and that some of the most successful advertising campaigns of recent years have already done so.

First aired in 2015, Sport England's campaign 'This Girl Can' presented an honest portrayal of ordinary women - none of whom were professional athletes or airbrushed sportswear models - taking part in physical activity.

Before the campaign, Sport England estimated that there were 2 million fewer women than men taking part in sport and exercise. Not only did 'This Girl Can' win awards, it had a clear impact on behaviour - 2.9 million women aged 18 to 60 said they had taken part in more exercise as a direct result.

Nike's recent 'Nothing Beats a Londoner' campaign is another good example, Duffy says.

'There's positive energy in that, of the diversity and positive activity of young people in London that you don't get to see an awful lot of."

According to Duffy, our neurological bias towards negative information tends to leave us with the sense that things are getting worse, not better, which is "such a destroyer of action" and leaves space for extreme viewpoints to form.

“So advertising has a role, I think, in presenting realistically positive messages to people. And that’s not just creative playing to get something that works – that’s actually a reflection of reality,” he says.

“People will absolutely engage with that story, if done well."

When asked what he hopes to achieve from writing his book, Duffy says he is "passionate" about having a realistic view of the world, "because it's so dangerous not to."

“It’s going to be really tough and take multiple actions from multiple actors, but there’s definitely things we can do.”

In The Perils of Perception, Duffy delves into exclusive Ipsos studies from over 40 countries - across subjects ranging from sexual fantasies to Brexit - to demonstrate the extent of our misperceptions and further explain how the media and social platforms can, and are, working on the problem.

He also explains how you can take action yourself - to get, in this increasingly bizarre world, a better grasp on reality.


The Perils of Perception, published by Atlantic Books, is available now.

@mejefferson_

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30 Oct 2018 

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