Crime, sex, immigration and climate change – how Australians get it wrong

Ipsos’ latest ‘Perils of Perception’ study shows which key facts the online public across 37 countries get right about their society – and which they get wrong. Now in its fifth year, the survey aims to highlight how we’re wired to think in certain ways and how our environment influences our (mis)perceptions.

How accurate is the Australian public?

  • CRIME - Almost six in ten Australians (59%) correctly identify that in Australia more people are killed by physical violence other than firearms or knives.  In that regard we are one of 13 countries to correctly identify the greatest killer of the three and in fact had the 5th highest proportion of people correctly identifying the biggest cause of deaths from crime.
  • PRISON POPULATIONS - People overestimate the scale of overcrowding in prisons in Australia. The average guess is that prisons are at 120% of capacity when the actual figure is 96%.
  • SEX - When it comes to sex, Australians think 18-29 year olds have far steamier lives than they actually do. We think women of this age have sex 14 times every four weeks, when the actual figure is 4 times and men aged 18-29 years have sex 16 times every four weeks, when the actual figure is also 4.
  • RENEWABLE ENERGY - Australians significantly overestimate the levels of energy consumed that comes from renewable sources. The average guess here is 21% when it is actually just 9%. 
  • TEMPERATURE CHANGE - Similarly, Australians underestimate the level of temperature change over the past two decades. We think 9 of the past 18 years were the hottest on record globally when in reality it is 17.
  • VACCINATIONS - Australians guess that three quarters of infants (76%) have been vaccinated against Diphtheria, Tetanus, Whooping Cough, Polio and Measles when levels are much higher at 95%.
  • UNEMPLOYMENT - Levels of unemployment are hugely overestimated in Australia. People think that 23% of working age Australians are unemployed and looking for work when the actual figure is almost a quarter of that (5%).
  • THE ECONOMY - When it comes to gauging our economic place in the world, Australians are too pessimistic, the average guess is that Australia has the 30th largest economy by GDP when in reality it is 12th.
  • AGEING POPULATION - Australians estimate that half their population (51%) will be over 65 years old in 2050 which is more than double the figure projected by the World Bank (22%).
  • IMMIGRATION - People hugely overestimate the proportion of immigrants in Australia with an average guess of 41% when the actual figure is 29%.  Interestingly this has increased from the 38%  we measured back in 2015 but in both years we sit at 12th position in terms of being the most accurate. It’s not hugely surprising our estimation has crept up as it seems a more widely and hotly debated topic than perhaps it was in 2015.
  • MUSLIMS - We are very wrong about the percentage of Muslims in Australia. The average guess is more than four times the actual figure (17% vs the 3% reality).  This is an increase from the 10% that was estimated in our Perils study in 2016.  While it is concerning, it is also perhaps not that surprising as, like immigration, there seems to have been considerably more discussion around Muslims in the Australian population and, more recently by the Government, immigration from Muslim countries.

Commenting on the study, Ipsos Australia Director, Jessica Elgood, said: “Australia gets it wrong on every aspect of our society, either under or overestimating the actual figures, however, when compared to the 37 countries surveyed, we are among the 10 most accurate overall, and rank particularly well when it comes to crime. We are among the more pessimistic when it comes to the size of our economy, unemployment  and levels of immigration, especially our Muslim population.

“The important point to take from these studies is not that we get things so drastically wrong but to think about why we get them wrong and what they tell us about ourselves and the environment we live in. There are many different reasons why we may be wrong about various facts of society.  These can include external influences on us, such as what we hear in the media, online, or from our politicians, but our own internal biases are just as important.  These biases include our tendencies to focus more on negative stories over positive ones and to more easily recall those in memory; to believe that things were always better in the past; to hedge our bets towards the safety of the middle of the pack. Sometimes it is simply that we are not very good with numbers or are being asked for a number on a subject that we know little about. 

“What is crucial to understand is that we overestimate what we worry about as much as we worry about what we overestimate - in other words, misperceptions can be a very useful pointer to people's real concerns.  The challenge is then how we as a society overcome some of these concerns, because this will often require more than simply revealing the truth or the facts if we are to overcome some of the emotional drivers of our misperceptions,” Elgood said.


In several countries around the world, people are wrong about the scale of knife and gun crime in their country. Although in 13 countries the majority correctly guess which is the biggest killer out of firearms, sharp objects such as knives or other physical violence, in other countries people’s perceptions don’t match what the crime statistics say.

Australia is one of those 13, with 59% correctly nominating physical violence as the biggest killer of the three, while 10% nominate guns as responsible for the most deaths and 30% think knives are responsible for the most deaths.

To put our accuracy into context, in Great Britain, 71% of people think knives cause the most deaths, when they actually account for just 25% of all deaths by interpersonal violence. In the US – where firearms account for almost 70% of all deaths through interpersonal violence, only six in ten (59%) correctly identify guns as the biggest killer.

People in most countries think prisons are even more crowded than they actually are. On average people think prisons are 30% over full capacity (130%) when they are 9% over capacity (109%).  Australia also overestimates prison populations thinking that they are 120% over capacity, when the actual figure is 96%.  Interestingly, the countries with the highest levels of overcrowding do tend to be the countries with the highest guesses.

Climate change

Seventeen of the past 18 years have been the hottest since records began. However, every country in the study underestimates the global temperature rise over the past 18 years. The average estimate across the study was 9 years, which was also the figure for Australia.

The majority of countries overestimate the amount of energy used that comes from renewable sources in their country. The average guess is 26% when it’s actually only 19%. Australia’s average guess was 21%, when the actual figure is 9%. Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, China and Singapore were the furthest out.


Nineteen countries in the study include estimates for the amount of sex they think 18-29 year olds are having, and most of them get it very wrong. On average people think young women have sex 20 times every four weeks and the guess for men was slightly higher at 22 times. In fact, when asked in the survey, 18 to 29-year-old women and men report they have had sex 5 and 6 times every four weeks respectively.

In Australia, we think women have sex 14 times every four weeks, when the actual figure is 4. The same is true for men, with people estimating that men have sex 16 times every four weeks, when the actual figure is also 4. Both men and women overestimate these figures.


All countries in the survey underestimate the near universal level of infant vaccinations in their country. The average guess is 73% when the actual figure is 94% according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures. In Australia, we guess that 76% of infants are vaccinated when the actual figure is 95%.


Every country in the study heavily overestimates the proportion of people unemployed and seeking work in their country. The average guess across the study was 5 times greater than the actual (34% when in reality it is closer to 7%). In Australia, we guess that 23% of us are unemployed and seeking work when the actual figure is 5%.

People tend to underestimate the size of their country’s economy relative to others. The majority of people placed their country’s GDP rank lower than the reality. In Australia, we underestimate by 18%, guessing we are the 30th largest economy, when we actually rank 12th.

Population facts

Every country massively overestimates the levels of growth of their elderly population. Across the countries on average, people think 54% of the population will be 65+ in 2050 when in reality the projection is less than half that (25%).

In Australia, we think that 51% of the population will by 65+ in 2050, when the actual figure is 22%.

The majority of countries hugely overestimate levels of immigration; a pattern we have seen in previous studies. The average guess across 37 countries is that 28% are immigrants when the actual figure is less than half that (12%).  Australia believes that 41% of its population are immigrants, when it is actually 29%.

Nearly every country in the study also over-estimates their Muslim population by a large margin. The average guess was nearly double the actual figure (20% vs 11%). Australia also hugely overestimates its Muslim population saying it is 17% when the actual figure is 3%

Looking across seven key questions where we get people to estimate factual realities, there are clear patterns in which countries have a more accurate view of their countries.  To capture this, we’ve calculated the Ipsos “Misperceptions Index”, as shown in the table below. 

This year Thailand receives the dubious prize of ‘least accurate’ in their perceptions, closely followed by Mexico and Turkey. Hong Kong is the most accurate, followed by New Zealand, with Hungary in third.

Misperceptions Index






Least accurate
















Saudi Arabia
























South Africa
























South Korea



United States






























Great Britain






New Zealand



Hong Kong


Most accurate