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Terry McLaughlin: Perceptions and reality

Terry McLaughlin | Columnist

When it comes to estimating the size of demographic groups in the United States, Americans rarely get it right. When the average perceptions of group sizes are compared to actual population estimates, an interesting pattern emerges – Americans tend to greatly overestimate the size of minority groups and underestimate the size of majority groups. This holds true for almost all demographics, including race, religion, and sexual orientation.

The data shared in this column was acquired through two US News surveys of U.S. citizens conducted by YouGov between January 14 and 20, 2022 which included questions on forty-three different groups involving race, education, income, family, gender, sexuality, religion, and politics, as well as less frequently studied groups such as pet-owners and those who are left-handed. The true and accurate percentages were taken from sources including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, YouGov’s internal polling results, and other well-established polling firms.

The polls asked questions such as “If you had to guess, what percentage of American adults are members of a Union?” Respondents’ average answer was 36%, when the actual number is closer to 4%.

When asked how many American household incomes are over $500,000, the answer was 26%, but the true number of households earning over half a million dollars is around 1%, not even close to the public perception. Respondents estimated that 20% of households earn over $1 million dollars annually – while the reality is less than one percent of American households enjoy that income level.

Survey respondents estimated the percentage of both Muslims and Native Americans in America at 27%. Census Bureau statistics show both of those demographics to be approximately 1% of the population. Estimates of atheists in our country were 33% – the true number? About three percent of the population identify themselves as atheists.

When questioned about the percentage of Black Americans in the U.S., respondents estimated 41%, when the reality is approximately 14%. Similarly, when asked about Hispanic Americans respondents guessed 39% – more than twice the actual number, which is closer to 17%.

These misperceptions hold true for sexual minorities as well. Americans polled estimated that about 30% of Americans are either gay or lesbian, when the true number is 3%. The number of bisexual people was estimated at 29%, while the true number is closer to 4%. Respondents believed that 21% of Americans are transgender, when the true amount is less than one percent, at approximately 0.6%.

A parallel pattern emerges when looking at estimates of majority groups, which tend to be underestimated in their size relative to their actual share of the adult population. For example, it was found that people underestimate the proportion of American adults who say they are Christian – the estimate is 58%, while the reality is closer to 70%. Sixty-five percent of adults were estimated to have at least a high school degree, but the reality is that 89% of American adults possess a high school diploma.

The most accurate estimates involved those groups whose true proportions fall around 50%. That included the percentage of American adults who are married, which was estimated at 55%, but is actually 51%, and those who have at least one child, in which the estimate was 58%, just one point off the correct number of 57%.

The trend of overestimating smaller populations and underestimating larger ones is nothing new. A 2016 Ipsos “Perils of Perception” survey found similar issues across forty different countries. While inaccurate or focused media coverage which amplifies exposure on certain issues is likely a main component of this phenomenon, the analysis of survey results concluded that other explanations for these errors could include struggling with simple math and proportions, lack of personal exposure, and social or psychological biases.

Taylor Orth, a Senior Survey Data Journalist with YouGov, suggests that a reasoning process called “uncertainty-based rescaling” could be the ultimate reason for these population misestimates. Orth proposes that when a person’s lived experience suggests an extreme value, such as a small proportion of people who are Jewish or a large proportion of people who are Christian, that person often reasonably assumes that their experiences are biased, so they adjust their estimate of a group’s size accordingly by shifting it closer to what they perceive to be the mean, or 50%, group size.

This theory would explain why Americans do not only incorrectly estimate demographics such as race or sexual orientation but are just as likely to misestimate less impactful statistics such as adults who are left-handed, those who own a pet, or those who have read a book in the past year. This suggests that errors in judgment may not be due to the specific context or topic.

In a series of studies, political scientists John Sides and Jack Citrin attempted to correct inaccurate beliefs about the size of the U.S. foreign-born population using both subtle and explicit methods. They subtly embedded validated information in a news story and, more explicitly, they directly provided survey respondents with actual Census Bureau estimates. They found that providing this accurate information did nothing to change the respondents’ opinions on the topic. Their research seems to indicate that shining a light on public misperceptions and providing accurate data may have little or no impact on changing the firmly held positions and opinions of Americans on almost any topic.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com


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