Perceptions are not reality: Things the world gets wrong

Ipsos MORI's new global survey highlights how wrong the public across 14 countries are about the basic make-up of their populations and the scale of key social issues.

Perceptions are not reality: Things the world gets wrong

Ipsos MORI’s new global survey, building on work in the UK last year for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London, highlights how wrong the public across 14 countries are about the basic make-up of their populations and the scale of key social issues.

In Great Britain we get a lot of things very wrong…

  1. Teenage pregnancy: the British think one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%.
  2. Muslims: we hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims in Britain – we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty).
  3. Christians: in contrast, we underestimate the proportion of Christians - we think 39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.
  4. Immigration: we think 24% of the population are immigrants – which is nearly twice the real figure of 13%.
  5. Ageing population: we think the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.
  6. Voting: we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.
  7. Unemployment: we think nearly 24% of the working age population are unemployed when the actual figure is much lower at 7%.
  8. Life expectancy: we overestimate our life expectancy by three years, thinking the average for a child born in 2014 will be 83 years, when the actual estimate is 80 years.
  9. Murder rates: we are however one of the best informed countries on the murder rate: 49% saying it is falling (which is correct), and only 25% think it is rising

But the rest of the world is just as wrong…

  1. Teenage birth rates: on average, people across the 14 countries think that 15% of teenagers aged 15-19 give birth each year. This is 12 times higher than the average official estimate of 1.2% across these countries. People in the US guess at a particularly high rate of teenage births, estimating it at 24% of all girls aged 15-19 when it’s actually 3%. But other countries with very low rates of teenage births are further out proportionally: for example, Germans think that 14% of teenage girls give birth each year when it’s actually only 0.4% (35x the actual figure).
  2. Muslims: people across just about all countries hugely overestimate the proportion of their population that are Muslim: the average guess across the countries is 16% when the actual proportion is 3%. For example, on average people in France think 31% of the population are Muslim, when the actual figure is only 8%. In Australia the average guess is nine times the actual proportion: people estimate it at 18%, when the actual proportion is only 2%.
  3. Christians: in contrast, majority-Christian countries tend to underestimate how many people count themselves as Christian. In the 12 majority-Christian countries in the survey, the average guess is 51%, when the actual proportion counting themselves as Christians is 61%. This includes countries like the US where people think 56% are Christian when official data shows it is 78%.
  4. Immigration: across the 14 countries, the public think immigration is over twice the actual level – the average guess is that 24% of the population was born abroad, when the actual figure is 11%. This includes some massive overestimates: the US public think 32% of the population are immigrants when the actual is 13%; in Italy the public think 30% are immigrants when it’s actually 7%; and in Belgium the public think it’s 29% when it’s actually 10%.
  5. Ageing population: we think the population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 39% of the population are 65+, when only 18% are. Italians are particularly wrong on this – on average, they think nearly half the population (48%) are 65+, when it is actually 21%.
  6. Voting: every country in the study underestimates the proportion of the electorate who voted in their last major election. The average guess is that 58% voted, when in fact 72% did. The French in particular are too pessimistic about the extent of democratic engagement: estimating that only 57% of the electorate voted in the Presidential election, when in fact 80% did.
  7. Unemployment: people tend to greatly overestimate the extent of unemployment in their countries. The average guess is 30%, when the actual figure is 9%. This includes some huge overestimates, for example in Italy, where the average guess is that 49% are unemployed, compared with an actual rate of 12%.
  8. Life expectancy: this is one area where on average we have a much better grasp of reality. Across the 14 countries, the average life expectancy for a child born this year is estimated to be 80 years, when across these countries as a whole it’s actually 81 years. However, there is still a wide range between countries: people in South Korea are too optimistic, expecting the average life expectancy to be 89 years, compared with an actual of 80 years; but Hungarians are too pessimistic, only expecting 68 years, when the average is predicted to be 75 years.
  9. Murder rates: 49% of people across the countries think that the murder rate is rising and only 27% think it is falling - when in fact in all countries in the study, the murder rate is actually falling. The British are the most likely to have an accurate view of murder rate trends: 49% think it’s falling and only 25% think it’s rising.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said:

“These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making. For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers. People also under-estimate “positive” behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more “normal” not to vote than it actually is. “This is the first international study to look at these misperceptions across a range of issues and countries – and it shows the British are far from alone in being wrong. In fact we’re among the better informed countries – but there are still huge gaps between perceptions and reality on a number of key issues in Britain.”

Looking across the full set of questions and how each country responded, we can identify a clear pattern in how close to reality the public in each country are. The image below shows that the country with the best understanding of these population characteristics and social issues is Sweden – and the country with the least accurate view is Italy.

 

Technical Note

  • These are the findings of the Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception Survey. 11,527 interviews were conducted between conducted between August 12th – August 26th 2014.
  • The survey was conducted in 14 countries around the world via the Ipsos Online Panel system in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain and the United States of America.
  • In the US and Canada respondents are aged 18-64, and 16-64 in all other countries. Approximately 1000+ individuals were surveyed in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Great Britain and the United States of America. Approximately 500+ individuals were surveyed in the remaining countries.
  • Where results do not sum to 100, this may be due to computer rounding, multiple responses or the exclusion of don't knows or not stated responses.
  • Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.
  • Read the questionnaire for the perils of perception study.
  • Read a technical note on how the Index of Ignorance was calculated.
  • Read a table of sources for our data
  • Download the full computer tables

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