Stories | May 4, 2017

Do you feel you know enough about economics?

Many in UK think learning more may help them manage money, survey shows.

Economics is relevant to daily life – and most people understand this. However, knowledge of economics rarely goes beyond that point and many don’t trust economists – as new research proves.

YouGov polling of 1,715 people in the UK over 18, sponsored by ING with the University of Bristol’s Economics Network, finds that 56% would like to improve their knowledge of economics in relation to their personal finances.

Forty-eight percent say they’d like a better understanding of economics to help them decide who to vote for in elections; 44% say it would assist them to understand the world they live in.

Four out of five respondents (83%) agree economics is relevant to everyday life. Yet many know little about what economists do or economics involves. Only about half say they read economics-related articles more than once a week. Thirty-six percent “never” or “rarely” pay attention to economics in the media.

A matter of opinion?
And there’s a big problem with trust: about half of those surveyed think economists’ views are based on their personal and political opinions – rather than hard data or analysis.

Mark Cliffe, chief economist at ING, says the findings show that many people want to know more about economics to help them in their daily lives. “Economists need to make what they actually do clearer and more relevant.”

Part of the problem – particularly when it comes to scepticism about economists and economics – may be the discipline’s association with forecasting and prediction, he notes.

When asked what economists do, nearly two-thirds of respondents said forecasting. Only 26% knew that economists advise on government policy and 33% that they can have a role in industry regulation.

Andy Ross, associate lecturer at the University of London, visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds and patron of the Economics Network, underlines the importance of economics.

“There are many obstacles to democracy, but poor communication by our profession should not be one of them,” says Ross. “The Economics Network and its sponsors are asking the questions we need to address if economics is to have more impact on public debate.”

“Economists need to make what they actually do clearer and more relevant.”

Do people know enough?
The online survey asked respondents what they know about economics and how they access news and information related to the economy or other economics-based topics.

Just 55% of respondents claim to understand the economic consequences of a fall in the pound’s exchange rate or government spending cuts. Only 42% say they understand the economics of Great Britain leaving the European Union.

Men are more likely to say they understand economics: 50-65% depending on the topic, compared to 28-38% of women.

Of all the people surveyed, nearly two-thirds (64%) indicate they haven’t studied any economics. Seventy-five percent agree the subject should be taught in schools. “Understanding how people perceive economics is vital if we are to help them make better decisions about their finances,” ING’s Cliffe says.

Diane Coyle, professor of economics at the University of Manchester and head of Enlightenment Economics, says economists must engage more with the general public.

“Not just so they understand economics, but to understand the concerns and questions people have about our work and influence,” she says.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those polled think the government should listen to the advice of economists when it comes to the national and global economy.

When asked where they would look to find economics-related news or articles, 26% say general websites such as the BBC, 26% specialist websites such as the Financial Times and 20% say Google. Six percent indicate they would look on social media.

ING’s Mark Cliffe concludes: “Since people get their information on economics primarily through digital channels, that’s where economists should focus.”

The full survey will be presented at a UK Treasury event 5 May 2017.