How values, perceptions and cognitive biases affect our views

People's values have a strong bearing on how they think about fairness. Some think that individuals are largely responsible for their own lives, while others emphasise structural constraints that hold people back. Views are coloured by positions on a left-right political axis but also on a libertarian-authoritarian social axis.

How people perceive fairness (or its absence) is also important, and does not always correlate with actual levels of fairness (or proxies, such as inequality). Most people underestimate the level of economic inequality, especially but not only if they are wealthy. Attitudes (whether people think that the system is unfair and needs to change, and how it should change) are dictated more by perceptions of fairness than by reality, and by relative differences more than by absolute levels. People react more to local and visible examples of unfairness, however small, than to larger but less tangible instances at a societal level. Because more people live in areas that are segregated by income, they perceive income inequality to be lower, and so are less supportive of policies that redistribute income.

Cognitive biases also play an important role in determining how people think about fairness, and how they process new information. As politics has become more polarised and intertwined with culture wars, cognitive biases have become more important. People place more weight on facts that fit with their world-view, and ignore or underplay facts that do not. They want to believe that they live in a fair and just society, especially if they benefit from it. They look to others who share their views as sources of trusted opinions and facts. People's perceptions are strongly linked to their group identities and their values. We should not fall for the technocratic conceit that the key barrier to changing attitudes is an information gap. We need to understand how people view the world and how they interpret facts and events within the context of those views and values.

However, this is not to say that people are unable to change their opinions or are impervious to facts. For example, the ‘culture wars’ that play out in the media and are routinely seized upon and even stoked up by politicians are not important to most people. King’s College London found that at least half the public take a more nuanced and variable position than the two opposing sides of the culture wars, while More in Common suggest that most people believe that cultural change is a central part of the British story, and something that they embrace.