Sunday, January 26, 2014

The psychology of welfare-bashing: Why Benefits Street isn't a fuss about nothing

This week I’ve been reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. This blog isn’t really about the book itself, but about a few interesting psychological studies I came across within its pages which I found interesting in light of the Benefits Street debacle. 

It’s now a well-known fact that the British public’s perceptions on welfare and immigration are woefully inaccurate. We’ve all heard the statistics -  surveys suggest people think around a quarter of the benefits bill is fraudulently claimed, when the actual figure is less than 1%. Pretty much the same applies to the proportion of immigrants claiming benefits. I think these studies help to illuminate why that is, and what might need to be done about it.

The first set of studies were about the impact of different types of information on our perceptions and decisions – and, I think, help to show why the Benefits Street debate is definitely not a mountain being made out of a molehill.

 “When college students who are deciding what courses to take next semester are presented with summaries of course evaluations from several hundred students that point in one direction, and a videotaped interview with a single student that points in the other direction, they are more influenced by the vivid interview than the summary judgements of hundreds. Vivid interviews with people have profound effects on judgement even when people are told, in advance of seeing the interviews, that the subjects of the interviews are atypical. Thus seeing an interview of an especially vicious (or humane) prison guard or an especially industrious (or slothful) welfare recipient shifts people’s opinions of prison guards or welfare recipients in general.”

It’s pretty obvious that vivid personal stories stick in people’s minds more than cold facts and figures – but I think this really brings home just how insidiously influential things like Benefits Street can be, and how big a challenge we face in trying to turn perceptions of welfare around. Even if we managed to get the facts about the benefits system into every school, workplace and newspaper tomorrow, Channel 4’s portrayal of the inhabitants of James Turner Street would probably still influence viewers’ opinions far more.

Much as I loved Parasite Street, which applies some of the techniques used to demonise benefits claimants to highlight the excesses of neoliberal capitalism, it’s not – and isn’t meant to be – a direct counter to negative stereotypes about people on benefits. For that, if these studies are to be believed, we need to put people face-to-face with ‘deserving’ benefit claimants to balance the negative TV coverage that’s out there. I think the ‘Who Benefits?’ initiative is a really nice idea – but we desperately need more like it, and they need to pack more of a punch.

The second study relates to the same type of informational bias, but this time it sheds some light on the role of the press, as opposed to TV:

“Researchers asked respondents to estimate the number of deaths per year that occur as a result of various types of misfortune. The researchers then compared people’s answers to actual death rates, with striking results. Respondents judged accidents of all types to cause as many deaths as diseases of all types, when in fact disease causes sixteen times more deaths than accidents. Death by homicide was thought to be as frequent as death from stroke, when in fact eleven times more people die of strokes than from homicides. In general, dramatic, vivid causes of death (accident, homicide, tornado, flood, fire) were overestimated, whereas more mundane causes of death (diabetes, asthma, stroke, tuberculosis) were underestimated.

Where did these estimates come from? The authors of the study looked at two newspapers, published on opposite sides of the US, and they counted the number of stories involving various causes of death. What they found was that the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents’ estimates of the frequency of deaths were almost perfectly correlated.”

Again, it’s not rocket science that people’s assumptions about the world will be influenced by the way it’s depicted in the newspapers they read – but I was certainly surprised by the sheer extent of that influence implied by this study. I don’t know if anyone’s done the same sort of analysis between people’s perceptions about the level of benefit fraud, or the number of immigrants claiming benefits, and the coverage of the tabloid press – but it would be interesting to see the results.

The Daily Mail may be the by-word for right-wing raggery, but I reckon it’s the Daily Express that is the biggest culprit here. Back when I worked in parliament, the press office used to send round the headlines of every major paper as part of their daily news update. It was a fascinating window into the pre-occupations of the British media – among other things, I discovered that the Telegraph really hates Scotland, with ‘Scotland rubbish, study finds’ appearing on their front page roughly once a week. But I digress.

The point is that I realised it was the Express, not the Mail, whose headlines were consistently, shockingly hate-filled. The Mail at least makes a pretence at being a serious paper, and its main front page story would normally bear at least some relationship to the actual news going on in the actual world. The Express, on the other hand, just peddles hate, day after day after day. Now Immigrants Are Coming to Eat Your Babies. Outrage As Gypsies Get Solid Gold Caravans. Did Teenage Mum On Benefits Kill Diana? Literally. Every. Single. Day.

This is what we’re up against – and we urgently need to get better and smarter at fighting it. It’s going to be an uphill battle, since another thing we know from the psychological evidence is that people are likely to ignore new evidence that contradicts their existing opinions – and disdain for the welfare state is becoming seriously entrenched. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that we have a historic responsibility to rehabilitate the welfare state in the minds of the public – before we lose it altogether.

1 comment:

  1. On a similar sort of theme, people's perceptions as to how dangerous our society is has also been warped by what's on our TV screens. And with the death rate in Albert Square higher than that of Sarajevo during the siege there..........