Different parts of the world exhibit different biases and levels of trust when it comes to accepting what the data tells us... and trusting who is delivering it.

December 7, 2020
Photo of the author - Jonathan Goodacre

Jonathan Goodacre

Last time, we were looking at how the presentation of data has become such a fundamental part of our everyday lives. And so it has continued; not just in the news, but as the basis of advice, as predictive models, to justify political action and even as entertainment (as anyone who watched American TV pundits during the American election will testify).

This has focused minds on the veracity and understanding of the data, with its possible consequent implications being serious. If you think the data comes from people who are incompetent, corrupt or have a secret agenda, then you are less likely to have faith in its outputs.

Interestingly, how far the public trusts data presented to them varies between different parts of the world. The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, which we’ve mentioned before, has an ongoing mission of investigating the way that evidence is presented and interpreted. Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic they surveyed people in 13 countries exploring the trustworthiness of various messengers with the results then visualised by the University of Lund. It demonstrated important differences and interestingly, at that stage, high trust overall in the World Health Organisation… except in Japan and South Korea.

It is clear also that public perception of data is connected to what they think about media generally, as explored in Ipsos/The Trust Project’s ‘Trust Misplaced’ recent study. Reassuringly, they report that the situation is not as bad as we might fear, stating:

‘There continue to be points of public consensus on many issues based on a broad acceptance of what we see the truth to be.’

Each place does however have varying levels of trust, as Marcos Calliari, Country Director of Ipsos Brazil says:

‘Many here have preconceived opinions, and they are just looking to prove them. We are not known to change opinions based on arguments.’

We are all familiar with that issue and it brings us to another key point...

Interpretation depends on our own contexts, knowledge and values. Tim Harford, host of BBC Radio’s ‘More or Less’, earlier this year outlined the biases we bring to this data, in the article ‘Why We Fail To Prepare For Disasters’. Amongst the important factors he cites is ‘optimism bias’ in the sense of our tendency towards wishful thinking:

'In a complex world, we are surrounded by contradictory clues and differing opinions. We can and do seize upon whatever happens to support the conclusions we wish to reach.'

It is also worth considering the other side of the equation too – the creation of the data in the first place. We are well aware at The Audience Agency, that who you are affects what you think and how you behave. This may seem rather obvious, but it is sometimes neglected - although it has been written about down the years. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was interested in the topic back in the 1970s. In his famous work Distinction, he found there was a counter-intuitive trend for those parts of the French public who were less engaged in attending cultural events to be more likely to state that the arts ‘elevated the mind’. He had a particular theory he wanted to prove (looking at social class) but it is worth remembering why ‘topline results’ do not always tell the whole story.

With an intelligent approach to this we can discover many more useful insights. A good example is Indigo / Family Arts Campaign’s deep delve into their own research (in the UK) which is encapsulated in the opening statement ‘Family Audiences may be first to re-embrace culture - but the last to be considered’.

You can also see The Audience Agency’s own analysis of the data from Indigo’s Act Two survey to understand how ‘regular and frequent’ audiences’ react to digital cultural content here.

Going beyond the topline often brings surprises and richer insight, as in WolfBrown’s Audience Outlook Monitor where Alan Brown notes that in the USA, a preference for digital delivery is coming from those who are vulnerable or older, in contrast to an idea of digital being for young people.

The Audience Agency’s work with the Centre for Cultural Value on the Covid-19 Cultural Participation Monitor (part of the Covid 19 Research project with the Centre for Cultural Value, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) brings a more complete picture of what is happening. . For example, on the issue of online delivery, we can see a distinction between mainly younger audiences wanting ‘digital first’ and older audiences preferring streamed material.

These are difficult times, but also fascinating times, in terms of the research that is being done and the new interest it is generating. Some of the research being done now is revealing insights that go beyond the particularities of Covid-19. Maybe, as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

‘The alchemists in their search for gold discovered many other things of greater value.’

Let’s keep looking for those insights of greater value.