Survey reveals gaps in understanding of economic figures

A new report shows that some economic statistics, such as unemployment and GDP figures, are likely to be misunderstood by members of the public and need to be better communicated.

Published by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE) and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) with advice and support from the RSS, 'Public understanding of economics and economic statistics' shows that numbers relating to the national economy, such as GDP and government debt, are less likely to be understood than those which directly relate to people’s personal finances, such as interest rates.

The report found that around half (51%) of British people felt that unemployment seemed higher than official figures suggest. Many of those surveyed (around 60%) assumed that the unemployment rate is calculated as a proportion of all working-age adults rather than ‘economically active’ people – which would make the UK unemployment rate closer to 24% rather than the current official figure of 3.8%.

These misperceptions led some focus group participants to express a lack of confidence in the accuracy and reliability of unemployment statistics, sometimes believing they were ‘massaged’ or ‘fudged’ by the government.

‘Our research reveals a significant gap in people’s understanding of economic concepts and economic statistics,’ says ESCoE’s Johnny Runge, who was lead author of the report. ‘Many feel economics is confusing and complicated, and regret they are unable to understand it. The lessons are stark for the economics community. We need to communicate economic issues better to the public, including how statistics are measured and who they are produced by.

‘The communication needs to be more accessible, engaging and relevant, and genuinely interactive so economists do not simply preach and teach, but listen and learn about the public perspective.’ 

The RSS, which works with ESCoE in activities relating to the Economic Statistics Working Group (ESWG), intends to hold a webinar on the report early next year.

Read the report, Public Understanding of Economics and Economic Statistics, and an accompanying blog by Johnny Runge.

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