King’s College London has a Policy Institute (PI). There are many policy institutes across universities inside and out of the Russell Group, but this one is ours. Although the PI has been a part of King’s for several years, their new director Bobby Duffy has begun his tenure with a view towards increasing interactions with students. If you search for them on social media, you’ll find that they’ve recently rebranded, launching a new website as well as pages on Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram.
The PI had a busy end to February. Duffy delivered a talk titled Perception and Reality: How evidence, emotion and identity shape our view of the world. They also had the finals of their student competition Policy Idol. Duffy worked previously as Global Director of the Social Research Institute at Ipsos Mori and so is extremely well versed in the world of data gathering and policy formulating.
“My role at Ipsos Mori was very similar to the work I do at the Policy Institute. I’m really pleased with the interdisciplinary culture of approaching policy solutions to social issues the PI at King’s possesses. King’s has a very wide breadth of knowledge across multiple subjects to its advantage over, for instance, the equivalent institute at the London School of Economics. Not that there’s any competition between university policy institutes; there are enough policy problems globally that we all have more than enough to share around.”
Duffy has close ties to directors at some of these other institutes. “We all came up together working on public policy through either government or think tanks, and are still in touch now.” These include Nick Pearce who ran the Downing Street Policy Unit when Gordon Brown was in office and now leads the Institute for Policy Research at Bath Uni, and Marc Stears who is director of the University of Sydney’s Policy Lab and was chief speech writer for the Labour party between 2012 and 2015. While these are useful relationships, the PI works across myriad universities and think tanks with anyone and everyone who is willing and able to contribute useful insights.
Duffy’s talk last month, as well as his work over the last few years has centred on the misperception phenomenon gripping global societies. It appears nations are prone to exaggerate when it comes to recognising reality. Take an issue such as teenage pregnancy, which globally has a rate of about 2%. The global average for what nations think their teenage pregnancy rate is 20%. In Argentina where the rate is highest in the world, the misperception and margin of error between the perception and reality is also higher than anywhere else in the world.
This is a trend that runs right through misperceptions, for instance in France. France has the highest Muslim population, 8.8% according to Pew Research, in Europe. Their perception of their Muslim population is a wild over estimate, one that exceeds the wild over estimates of all the other nations.
These misperceptions, according to Duffy, aren’t necessarily new; we’ve been overestimating our worries and worrying about our overestimates forever. Human beings are terrible at detecting slow, positive changes and susceptible to exaggerating negative things in our lives; a study by John T. Cacioppo which showed positive and negative images and looked at what lit up in the brain yielded this insight.
In addition to this, the longer we are away from something that happened, the better we think it was. This “rosy retrospection” speaks to why we forget the boring or irritating bits of holidays, and why we’re all used to hearing about “the good old days” from our elders or our peers.
Though the situation is not a new one, there are concerns given our current landscape. The combination of how we think (biases and heuristics, cognitive capabilities and abilities in maths and literacy) with what we’re told (media, social media, politics, experience) has had some major updates in the latter category, with technology widening access to information but also allowing for more sophisticated fabrication of it. One of the issues think tanks and the like are concerning themselves with is the impending reality in which videos can be made to look like anyone saying anything.
An antidote is needed to the weaponisation of fake news and targeted political campaigns which foster and thrive on misperception, and so one of the early focuses of the PI has been to participate in the urgent ongoing debate brought on by this crisis of misperception. The debate is centred on evidence; how is it used; was our view of it too technocratic; is identity politics a virtue or an obstacle in considering it.
Beyond this, the British Academy has commissioned the PI to perform a review of policy labs in government and academia. The PI has also recently been commissioned to analyse political polarisation over issues such as Brexit or Trump. We’re able to reveal an initial insight that, although the rhetoric in Britain these past few years has been that we’re polarised, the data would indicate there’s more nuance to our landscape than we’re told. In America however, polarisation seems to be a very real phenomenon according to data, and being so entrenched in a view can itself lead to misperceptions, such as the feeling among Republicans that there are far fewer gun deaths than actually happen in the US.
The Policy Institute would certainly be unfit if their long term plans didn’t include the vast, diverse and multi talented student body they share a campus with. This year saw the fifth winner of Policy Idol since the student competition began. Duffy is particularly proud of the panel they amassed to judge the entrants, with the panel of experts comprising such denizens of public policy as Trevor Philips, Lord Willets, Louise Casey and Bronwen Maddox.
The winner, Cristina Zheng Ji, had the policy idea of adding Red, Yellow & Green labels (found currently on food products, signalling how ethically sourced they were) to clothing, so fashion enthusiasts and casual shoppers alike have more information when purchasing their garments. Duffy remarked that any one of the ten finalists could have won, which an admirable breadth of disciplines represented among the students who entered, including a PHD student in anti-microbial research pitching his policy to swap our anti-bacteria hand soaps for regular soap in order to combat microbial resistance.
Though policies can have real effects in the short term, the majority range over periods of years or even generations before they’re able to make the differences they sought to. For those of us with a very real sense of panic within our political reality, of fear that we’re sliding back towards fascism or authoritarianism, or just generally getting a vibe that, actually things are bad, the Policy Institute is a very real source of solace. Take heart in the fact that there are people asking practical, rational questions and taking tangible steps towards making our world a better place, inform yourself on how you might be able to do the same, and remember to reflect on how things are better than they used to be.
Credit: @RossLHills, Twitter