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The Professor Will See You Now: Politicians wrong about nearly everything

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

3 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. This week: politicians wrong about nearly everything

It’s the political science equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. You poll the public with factual questions about politics or the economy. This demonstrates an imperfect relationship between beliefs and reality. Hey presto – an article. “British public wrong about nearly everything,” as a headline in The Independent once put it.

I’m not knocking it. Done well, this sort of work can be a useful corrective, reminding us of how voters perceive the world. I’ve done it myself. When there were just four Muslim MPs, a survey I did found that the average response from the British voter was that some 14 per cent of the Commons was Muslim – that would have been 90 MPs. They thought there were 116 gay and lesbian MPs.

And it turns out that misperceptions of reality are not confined to voters. Two fascinating pieces of recently published research show that politicians too can get things badly wrong.

One article, in The British Journal of Political Science, reported US politicians’ knowledge about levels of economic hardship. Not so much a price of milk question – more a series of “how many of my voters can afford milk” questions. Testing knowledge about financial insecurity, affordable healthcare and university debt, it found that most politicians provided answers that were seriously wrong – although, somewhat to the evident surprise of the researcher, the politicos had a tendency to overestimate the levels of hardship in their areas.

Lurking in this sort of research is often the assumption that people would hold different views if they had the correct information (“if only they knew”). One nice feature of this piece of work was that it presented a sample of respondents with the correct answers, before asking them some related policy questions, while other politicians were asked the same questions but without the correct information. Your assumption might be that these two groups would give different responses. Spoiler: they didn’t. Knowledge of the actual data made no difference to their views at all.

Another recent piece of research, out in Political Psychology, looked at politicians’ perceptions of the attitudes of their constituents. They polled voters in four countries – Belgium, Canada, Germany and Switzerland – about a range of policy questions (“Canada should increase the number of immigrants it admits each year”), while simultaneously asking politicians what they thought voters would say.

They found clear evidence of projection – that is, assuming that others share your own beliefs. For example, politicians who “totally agreed” with a policy estimated (on average) public opinion on that issue 24 percentage points higher than politicians who totally disagreed with it. Projection was especially strong when it came to their own supporters, rather than the general public.

Both of these papers also ran the same tests with voters and found that they were no less accurate than their political masters. Sure, they too got things wrong, and engaged in industrial level projection, but they were no worse offenders than politicians. Politicians also wrong about nearly everything, you might say.

The observant reader will have noticed that the United Kingdom was not one of the countries studied. Perhaps British politicians would not suffer from these flaws. Maybe they would, instead, have a deep understanding of the issues facing their constituents and be entirely in touch with the views of their voters. Maybe.

Your further reading for this week: A Thal, Do Political Elites Have Accurate Perceptions of Social Conditions?, British Journal of Political Science (2023); J Sevenans et al, Projection in Politicians’ Perceptions of Public Opinion, Political Psychology (2023)

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Read the most recent article written by Professor Philip Cowley - The Professor Will See You Now