Perils of Perception, Prejudice and Conspiracy Theories

The gap between reality and perception is often massive. This is illustrated by a new survey carried out for the Royaumont Talks, whose theme this year was "Believing". The results were presented on 1 December at Royaumont Abbey by Didier Truchot, founder and chairman of Ipsos. In this survey, Ipsos tested the beliefs of the population in ten major countries on a range of social, political, economic and current affairs issues – and compared them with actual data.

Perils of Perception, Prejudice and Conspiracy Theories - Ipsos

Misperception of several social facts

People tend to overestimate social or economic data such as the proportion of immigrants in their country, the proportion of Muslims, the evolution of murder rates or the wealth of the richest households:

  • In all the countries studied, the share of immigrants in the population is significantly overestimated (an immigrant being defined as a person born in a country other than the one in which they currently live). On average for the 10 countries surveyed, the gap between perception (24%) and reality (12%) is between 1 and 2.
  • The error is even greater when it comes to the proportion of Muslims. While the actual figure is 3%, respondents in the 9 predominantly non-Muslim countries surveyed (Turkey was excluded from this question), respondents estimate it to be more than 17%. Interestingly, we asked the opposite question in Turkey: "Out of 100 people in your country, how many do you think are Christians?" And here again, the exaggeration in people’s perceptions is significant: there are 0.2% Christians in Turkey, but the perception is that they amount for 16% of the population.
  • In all the countries surveyed, a majority or (in Poland and Japan) a significant minority of the population think that the murder rate has risen since 2000 – while it has fallen everywhere except in the United States.
  • The share of total household wealth held by the richest 1% is greatly overestimated. On average, respondents estimate it at 38% – while the World Inequality Database says it is only 13%. Inequality is real, but overestimated.

From misinformation to conspiracy theories

While the most irrational beliefs (witchcraft, ghosts, clairvoyance) remain confined to a small minority, they attract more than a quarter of the population. On average across the ten countries, more than a quarter (27%) of respondents say they believe 'partly' or 'completely' in witchcraft, more than a third (35%) in ghosts and 28% in clairvoyance.

Almost half of the population is suspicious of scientists. When it comes to deciding whether a fact is scientifically true or false, 49% say they trust their experience and personal research more than the explanations of scientists.

Some conspiracy theories related to current world affairs also resonate with between 15% and 25% of the population:

  • A quarter of respondents, on average across the ten countries, say they believe there is an organised project aiming to “replace” their country’s population with migrants. 25% think it is "completely true" or "fairly true" that "the elites in my country have a project to 'replace' the native population of our country with immigrants from other cultures and religions".
  • More than one in five (22%) believe that "the current Ukrainian government is heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazi groups".
  • Fewer people think that "the Americans never sent men to the moon" and that "the pictures are fakes, shot in a studio by NASA". However, an average of 18% across the 10 countries believe this.

In what amounts to misinformation rather than conspiracy theory or irrationality, the individual actions most likely to combat climate change remain relatively unknown:

  • The steps that are easiest to implement and closest to everyday life are perceived as having the greatest impact – while in reality they sometimes have a more limited effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, out of a list of 9 proposed actions, the one that was frequently selected (by 60% of respondents) was to “recycle as much waste as possible”, even though it ranked only seventh in terms of real impact.
  • Conversely, high-impact actions that require more effort are perceived as less likely to limit global warming. For example, having one fewer child or avoiding long-haul flights are mentioned by only 20% and 13% of respondents respectively – despite being the two actions that would most reduce an individual's carbon emissions.

The democratic process is not entirely immune to this climate of suspicion

Trust in electoral democracy remains a majority view – but not by a wide margin. 58% of respondents believe that "elections in their country are organised in a secure and transparent way that guarantees the reliability of their results". In the United States, only a slim majority (51%) agree with this statement.

The United States remains emblematic of this mistrust: the results of the 2020 presidential election there remain controversial. 30% of those interviewed believe that its outcome – the non-re-election of Donald Trump – is linked to irregularities or manipulation. This figure, which is only 16% among Democratic voters, rises to 59%, or 6 out of 10, among Republicans.

Download the Perils of Perception Report

About this study

Survey conducted among 10,000 people on the Ipsos.Digital platform from 22 to 25 November 2023.