Much of our work over the last couple of years has focused on the likely consequences of the ‘perception gap’. Most people (85% of citizens in Greater Manchester, for example) place more importance on ‘compassionate’ values of community, social justice and equality than they do on values of wealth, success or social status. But it’s also the case that most people (75% across Greater Manchester) underestimate the importance that others place on these values. Our work finds that this ‘perception gap’ is greatest among people who self-identify as ‘liberals’.
It seems that the 'perception gap' is related to many different outcomes - people's well-being, their feelings of connection to community, and their concern about social and environmental issues. We have also repeatedly found that people who hold less accurate perceptions of what matters to a typical fellow citizen are less likely to vote.
One key factor in shaping the outcome of the recent UK General Election seems to have been an increase in voter turn-out.
Why might this increase have arisen?
There are many things that may influence whether people vote. But perhaps one important factor is a tension between people’s own values and their perceptions of others’ values.
A typical person’s own ‘compassionate’ values may motivate them to vote for whichever party they feel is most likely to promote social justice, equality, environmental protection and strong communities; while that same person’s perception of what matters to others may hold them back from voting at all. And remember, this ‘perception gap’ is particularly large among people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ as opposed to ‘conservative’.
The dramatic increase in support for the Labour Party in the few weeks running up to the election did not, in all likelihood, arise because people came to attach greater importance to social justice or equality over the course of the campaign. That kind of shift doesn’t happen quickly.
But the ‘perception gap’ could be closed quickly. Perhaps, in part, what we saw in the few weeks running up to the election were the effects of people coming to realise that others held these concerns to be more important than they had hitherto thought. This realisation may have been helped by the reduced influence of newspapers, many of which seem to promote the erroneous perception that people care most about themselves.
At one level, this is simply to restate that success begets success: that is, as support for the Labour Party was seen to grow, it was likely to grow further. But if I am right that shifting understandings of what others care about played a part here, then there’s a consequence of practical importance.
The suggestion, voiced by many Conservatives since the election, that their party lost support because their manifesto didn’t make much of a “retail offer” conveys an understanding that the question uppermost in most voters’ minds must be: “What’s in it for me?”
This very suggestion is likely to widen the ‘perception gap’ – eroding people’s motivation to vote (especially among people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’).
If they are to build further on their growing public support, the Labour Party would do well to frame their success as arising not because they spoke to people’s self-interest, but because they connected with people’s concern for one another.
This framing, if adopted by any political party, but especially if adopted by political parties that appeal to ‘liberal’ voters, could be of great help in closing the ‘perception gap’ and engaging even more citizens in civic life.
(Cartoon by Bec Sanderson)