Why statistics (and surveys)?
I am a true believer in both the power of statistics and the power of surveys in helping us understand the world, to make better decisions and ultimately improve lives. There are so many examples of how they’ve had a real impact on the world and outcomes for so many people. Surveys have their limitations, but they are also a type of magic, where you can get a representative view of opinion, beliefs and behaviours from just interviewing a (careful) selection of the population. We need to understand what people think, how they feel, as that drives so much of how we act.
Why this book?
It’s partly because of this that I wrote the book. Understanding how wrong people are about key social and political realities is a brilliant way to understand what we’re too worried about, what we’re not worried enough about and how we see what is 'normal'. That’s really important, because what we think of as the norm affects how we behave ourselves – so if we’re very wrong about what we think other people think, that’s important to understand. The book gives an insight into the emotional nature of how we see facts: we overestimate immigration and teen pregnancy because we’re worried about them, and we’re worried about them because we’re drawn to and remember the negative more than the positive. We think the murder rate is going up (when it’s going down) because we suffer from 'rosy retrospection', forgetting the bad from the past. But it’s not just our faulty thinking that misleads us: the media, social media and politics also actively leads us astray. The key point of the book is that these two factors – how we think and what we’re told – interact with each other to create a 'system of delusion'. Politicians and the media play on these biases because they’re successful, and we read, click or vote for them because of our biases. We can start to understand and act on these biases once we’ve identified the systemic nature of them.
I’m currently writing a book on generational myths and realities. There is a lot of bad analysis on how different each generation is, often focusing on Millennials. A lot of this is nonsense, but the real problem is that all this noise hides some real differences. My aim in the book is to separate myth and reality by looking over as long a period as I can – not just looking at snapshots, but trying to unpick what is due to people just being different ages, what’s changed in society as a whole and what’s down to being born at a particular time. It’s very exciting for me to be able to look at decades of life stories through surveys in this way – but I also can’t wait to get the drafting over with by Christmas (I hope!).
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Well, given the book, I’m seeing everything through a generational frame – trying to bust some myths and clichés. So, for example, one of the Millennial myths that most annoyed me is that they are particularly narcissistic as a generation. This was an accusation in a number of books, based on their responses to surveys. But when you look back far enough, you find that my generation, Gen X, had almost exactly the same sort views when they were young. Being narcissistic looks much more like a feature of youth generally, and Millennials will grow out of it in the same way Gen X did.