Not behaving badly? We think others are worse than they are, research says

People in the UK overestimate the bad behaviours of other people, a new study has revealed.

The British public think that their fellow Brits eat more than the recommended amount of sugar.
The British public think that their fellow Brits eat more than the recommended amount of sugar.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos Mori in partnership with the government’s behavioural insights team – or "nudge unit" – shows that we think more people are avoiding tax than is really the case, and we think that more people eat over the recommended daily amount of sugar than they really do.

This is significant because an individual’s behaviour is strongly influenced by what they think others are doing.

The survey findings are due to be unveiled tomorrow at Behavioural Exchange 2015, a major conference of behavioural scientists and policy makers in London being hosted by the Behavioural Insights Team.

In total, 6,100 people were surveyed across six countries: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, France and Germany.

The survey shows that the British public think that:

  • 69 per cent of their fellow Brits eat more than the recommended amount of sugar, while nutrition surveys show it is only 47 per cent;
  • 65 per cent of the population are not saving enough for retirement, when government studies suggest it is actually 43 per cent;
  • 36 per cent of the population have avoided paying the full amount of tax on income or purchases in the past year, when only 6 per cent admit to it themselves; and
  • only 42 per cent of their countrymen do the recommended amount of exercise each week, when detailed surveys of physical activity show that 57 per cent do.

Bobby Duffy, the managing director of the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute and global director of Ipsos Social Research Institute, said: "This survey raises an important challenge for governments and others trying to influence behaviour. 

"The public across countries have clearly got the message that we’re eating too much sugar, not exercising enough, not saving enough for retirement. 

"But we now think these behaviours are much more common than they really are. We need to find a better balance between explaining the scale of an issue and not making it normal." 

David Halpern, the chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, said: "Findings from behavioural science show us that people are strongly influenced by what they think their fellow citizens are doing. The behavioural insights team, for example, has shown that people are more likely to pay their tax when they are reminded of the truth  that most people pay their tax on time.

"So this survey has important implications. We underestimate how virtuous our fellow citizens are, and this really matters. If we think others are cheating, not saving enough, or not eating healthily, then we’re much more inclined to do the same ourselves".


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