catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Are things getting worse?

with one comment

The results of the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes are now available, and as usual our pollsters find that lots of things aren’t as good as they used to be. Two-thirds of us think that crime has increased over the last couple of years, and only 8% think it has decreased. Two-thirds of us also think that taxes have increased (with 13% thinking they have decreased), and that clearly the government hasn’t been spending its extra tax revenue very well, since nearly 60% think that the standard of health services has decreased (18% think increased), while nearly 50% think that the standard of public education has decreased (14% increased). Nor is the economic news all good – two-thirds say that prices have increased ‘a lot’. Only with unemployment does the public detect a positive trend, with those who think it has decreased (45%) outnumbering those who think that it has increased (26%).

How accurate are these perceptions? Yesterday the ABS confirmed with its crime victim survey that property crime is decreasing and crimes against persons are stable. There is some admittedly modest evidence that at least over the shorter term educational outcomes have improved. Similarly, many health outcomes have improved; at any rate governments have been spending up in the hope of improving health. Inflation has remained low. The survey respondents are however right that tax has increased and that unemployment is down.

Out of the five areas in which people thought that there were negative trends in only one, tax, were they clearly right. Obviously most people don’t have these kinds of statistics stored away just in case a pollster asks them, but why are their guesses so negative? Partly this is because it is hard to compare things over time. Research I reported in an article I wrote a few years ago found that over time people are more likely to forget bad than good things. This has obvious benefits, since we don’t stay down about bad things that happened in the past. But it means that we contrast fresh memories which include bad things with old sanitised memories that overplay the good in the past. Also, people usually give more negative answers to general questions than to specific questions about themselves, as can be seen in questions about job security. Because the media reports bad rather than good things, we tend to assume that things are worse for others generally than they really are. It is interesting that the only positive trend that at least a plurality picked is unemployment, an easily conveyed measure that is widely reported on a monthly basis. The sheer repetitiveness of the good news meant that it sunk in, for a large minority at least.

These numbers help explain why it is so tough to be a politician. Voters’ inclination to assume that things are getting worse is so powerful that pollies receive little credit for what they have achieved.


Written by Admin

April 27, 2006 at 9:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Here in the UK everyone is saying the same things, so much so that many would like to emigrate to Australia. But of those that do, one third return within 3 years, and two thirds in ten years. I know you call us whingeing poms, but it seems we have infected you lot.


    September 8, 2008 at 10:05 am

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