On almost every measure, people perceive things to be much worse than they actually are! Since 2012, statisticians from the British-based research firm, IPSOS, have conducted a large international survey of the perceptions of tens of thousands of people on a wide range of issues including rates of teen pregnancy, violent crime, terrorism, obesity, happiness, and the percentage of Muslims in their country’s population. Then they compare these perceptions to the actual numbers.
The discrepancies are much greater for issues that people fear the most, which varies greatly from country to county. Americans think that 17% of the population is Muslim, but it is only one percent (16 point gap). French people believe that 31% of the population is Muslim, but it is only 8% (23 point gap). In countries with less negative press about Muslims and fewer incidents of attacks by Islamic extremists, the perception/reality gap is much narrower. In Norway, Muslims make up five percent of the population, while Norwegians perceive it to be 11% (6 point gap). Note that they still get it very wrong; believing it to be more than twice what it actually is.
But, there are also differences among countries in the overall accuracy of their citizens’ perceptions. Germans and Swedes are the most accurate, while Italians and Americans are the least accurate.
Why do so many people misperceive reality so dramatically? There are many complex reasons, but chief among them are a lack of critical thinking skills and an inability to counter thinking errors and biases, particularly confirmation bias.
Here’s an excellent 25 minute video by the lead researcher, Bobby Duffy, describing the study and sharing some of the key findings. He also suggests ideas for improving the situation. Click on his name below the photo to access the video.
And here is a link to the book, “Perils of Perception”