Generally, if you ask Irish people how they are doing, the vast majority respond that their life is going well. Yet if you ask the same people how the country is doing, they will respond far more negatively. In a recent Eurofound (2021), Towards the future of Europe report, just 7 per cent of us in Ireland described ourselves as being pessimistic about our economic future, meaning 93 per cent of the population think their personal life will improve in the future. Yet when you ask the same people how they think the country is going, a significant one in four, or 26 per cent, feel the place is going to the dogs. There is a huge difference between what people feel about themselves and what people feel about the country. We are all citizens, if we feel our lives are improving, then surely the country can’t be heading for disaster. Or maybe we are lying to ourselves?
How do we explain people being objectively pessimistic but subjectively positive? And what might this disparity mean for politics as the election race tightens?
Let’s start with the fact that as an evolutionary tool, humans tend to give bad news primacy over good news. If you look at human history we’ve been here for about 300,000 years. For the vast amount of that time, maybe 95 per cent of our existence on the planet, we were both predator and prey.
Our brains learned to prioritise bad news like, “the tiger is over there” over messages like “this flower smells nice”. Bad news got you killed, so bad news came first. Our brains evolved to rank bad news over good. It grabs our attention and we have not yet evolved from fight or flight responses hard-wired in us from the days when we were roaming in nomadic packs.
The evolutionary legacy of this is a news cycle that is biased towards catastrophe. The policy “if it bleeds, it leads” dominates newsrooms. As well as sex, danger sells. Our media is jaundiced towards stories that prompt fear, anxiety and trepidation. This is well known and has been the case for as long as newspapers have been around but today’s digital age has given rise to the “attention economy”. Advertisers are vying for people’s attention across a myriad of online platforms and social media apps. Messages are blasted at our brains continuously, aiming to grab our attention. What used to be a once a day engagement with the news cycle is now an always on phenomenon.
The company that grabs most of our attention generates most revenue. Shareholders and management are locked into an orgy of attention seeking, leading to an entire digest of clickbait. And how best to bait people? Appeal to their amygdala, that part of our brain that identifies danger and processes our body’s ancient reaction to threat, stimulating a heightened reaction. There’s money in the amygdala.
This relentless cycle of negative news impacts people’s perception of the reality “out there” in society as opposed to “in here” in our own lives, leading to a mismatch between what we think is happening and what is actually going on. American data indicates that the more a person engages with the news media, the more this bias towards negativity solidifies in their head. Interestingly, the people who tend to consume most news media are not the poor, who have lots to be frustrated about, but the reasonably affluent, who have less to be worry about. Yet they are most worried, catastrophising away, leading to misconceptions about the true state of the society.
An article from 2020 by colleague Conor Pope highlighted the discrepancy between the Irish public’s perception, as informed by polling data, and the hard facts on a range of issues. We believed there to be 24 foreign-born residents for every 100 people in Ireland, compared to the 17 in reality. We overestimated the proportion of the country living in Dublin (41 per cent perception v 28 per cent reality); the share of the population aged over 65 (36 per cent vs 19 per cent). The public vastly underestimated the share of adults who own their own home to be just 49 per cent, whereas official figures put that number closer to 70 per cent. Maybe due to various health scares, we are petrified about our general health. When polled, respondents estimated that just 60 per cent of Irish people would rate their health as good or very good, when in reality, by asking people themselves about themselves, the actual figure is as high as 84 per cent.
This negativity is contagious.
Recent research commissioned by University College Dublin (UCD) revealed that about half (48 per cent) of those polled did not trust the government to be honest and truthful. A whopping 58 per cent believed the government communicates inaccurate and biased information, while some 45 per cent thought they ignore rules and procedures. Yet international data points to Ireland having low levels of political corruption by global standards. These negative perceptions of politicians and the State are stronger compared to our European neighbours, with only the British and Polish people rating their governments worse. That’s pretty remarkable given the political chaos in the UK and the fact that Poland is locked in a divisive culture war with a government displaying distinct autocratic tendencies.
Negative perceptions of the state of the nation should mean that opposition parties will sail into power in the next election – at least on paper. In reality, maybe not. People may say one thing to pollsters or on social media but we know that when they go into the privacy of the ballot box, strange things happen. Declared public positions can evaporate as people’s votes are determined by their own personal circumstances and their own perception of who is most likely to look after their interests. This is where the huge disparity mentioned at the top of this article comes into play. While 26 per cent of people feel negative about society, according to the various polls, only 7 per cent are pessimistic about their own situation and their own future. Elections have a tendency to reiterate that the ballot box isn’t Twitter. Expect the polls to narrow dramatically as we zero in on voting day. And expect them to narrow yet further once the ballot paper and pen is in our hands.