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A Worldwide Knowledge Deficit

Updated on December 1, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.


The Perils of Perception is a survey of how people perceive their own countries. The 2018 edition found that Swedish people have a better understanding of their homeland’s issues than the other nations in the survey. Meanwhile, Italians are the most ignorant, with Americans nudging it for the bottom position on the table.

One of the main reasons so many of us make wrong guesses is that we struggle with math. The U.K.’s Royal Statistical Society says that eight percent of the population can’t correctly answer that 50 is 25 percent of 200. Thirty percent can’t figure out that the average of 5, 10, and 15 is 10. This failure to grapple with simple math problems leads us to misinterpret statistical data.


Distorted View of Immigration

People in almost every country overestimate the number of immigrants among them.

Brazilians are the most ignorant on this subject; on average, they believe that immigrants make up 25 percent of their country’s population. The actual number of immigrants in Brazil is a tiny 0.3 percent. The Chinese are just as far adrift from reality. They estimate that 11 percent of the population is made up of immigrants although the actual number is 0.1 percent.


The inaccurate perceptions can sometimes drive policy. Poles seem to fear they are being swamped by a wave of immigrants, estimating that 14 percent of the country’s people are foreigners. In 2015, they elected a right-wing government in part on its promise to curb immigration; it was re-elected in 2019.

But, the flood of newcomers that Poles believe is pouring over their borders is non-existent. The actual number of immigrants in Poland is less than half of one percent of the population.

Americans believe almost a third (32 percent) of their fellow citizens come from other countries. The reality is that 13 percent of Americans are immigrants and the debate on this issue has reached near-hysterical levels in some political quarters while based on inaccurate stories peddled for political purposes.


Media Misinformation

King’s College London notes that British people “massively overestimate how many EU-born people now live in the UK. On average we think EU citizens make up 15 percent of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s five percent.”

But, can they be blamed for holding inaccurate beliefs? International affairs columnist Gwynne Dyer says no: “For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country's three largest-circulation morning papers, The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes.”

Is that because of the publisher/editor anti-immigrant bias, or to boost sales? Probably, a bit of both.

But, look how this played out in the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union. In London, where 37 percent of the population is foreign-born, the people are comfortable with immigration. Londoners voted strongly to remain in the EU. But, in rural areas, people rarely see an immigrant and start to panic, thanks to the newspapers, that their village pub is about to be turned into a mosque. The vote outside the major metropolitan areas was heavily in favour of leaving.

The constant foghorn blasts about "fake news" coming out of the Trump White House reduced confidence in the integrity of all media in the United States; 69 percent of Americans believe there is more lying in the media than there was 30 years ago.


We’re Fatter than We Think

Here’s the question: “Out of every 100 people (20 years of age and over) how many do you think are overweight or obese?”

Have a stab at that one before all is revealed.

It’s unlikely you are a reader in Saudi Arabia, but if you are you get the booby prize. Saudis guessed only 28 of their fellow citizens were too heavy, but the real number is 71. Americans said 50 against the real number 66. Brits picked 44 but the reality is 62. Canadians? 43 against 56. Australians 51 to 62.

The people of three countries guessed wrong in the other direction. Indians thought 41 percent of their countrymen were overweight or obese, while the actual number is 20 percent. Chinese and Japanese folk also erred on the overestimate side but not by as much.

South Koreans got it spot on saying 32 percent of their neighbours are fat.


Religious Misconceptions

How many Muslims live in non-Muslim countries? Again, the perception almost everywhere is wildly inaccurate. Eight percent of the population of France is Muslim, but the average estimate made by French people is 31 percent. Given the massive media coverage of Islamic extremist attacks in the country an overestimate is not surprising.

Only one percent of Americans are Muslim. However, Americans think it is 15 percent. Clearly, some people have been watching too much Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News from which you might get the idea that half the U.S. population follows the Islamic faith.

Canadians also overestimate. They see Muslims as making up 20 percent of the population, while the actual number is two percent.


In Britain, says Ipsos MORI, “we hugely over-estimate the proportion of atheists, agnostics, and those who do not affiliate themselves with any religion―the average guess is 45 percent when the actual figure is almost half that (25 percent) . . . the average guess across the countries is 37 percent when the actual average proportion is 18 percent.”

Asian countries, however, have a good grasp of the non-religious people among them.

What Does It Mean?

The purpose of The Perils of Perception, say the study’s authors “was not just to raise a wry smile at other peoples’―or whole nations’―expense . . . not to imply lack of intelligence, just the absence of knowledge or information . . .”

Is that important? Is a Spaniard’s life negatively impacted because she and her fellow citizens overestimate the percentage of young people still living with their parents (guess of 65 percent versus reality of 40 percent)? Probably not.


However, the Ipsos MORI people point out that the way we behave is affected by how we perceive social norms.

Previous studies have shown we underestimate the number of people who do the recommended daily amount of exercise. This misperception gives us permission to join what we think is the herd and not exercise.

This power of social norms can and is harnessed by government, business, and the media. In 2012, the U.K. government conducted an experiment to try to get people to pay their taxes on time. The report of the test notes that “For example, the project demonstrated that by making simple changes to tax letters, explaining that most people in the local area had already paid their taxes, repayment rates were boosted by around 15 percentage points.” Taxpayers did not want to appear to be contrarians and got their chequebooks out.

Bonus Factoids

  • Surveys such as the Ipsos MORI one quoted here reveal all kinds of myths. For example, 15 percent of people in the U.K. believe the European Union has issued a regulation on how much cleavage barmaids are allowed to show. It hasn’t.

  • There’s another widely held belief (24 percent) that Eurocrats have banned bananas that are “too bendy.” It’s completely untrue but that didn’t stop pro-Brexit campaigner, and now prime minister, Boris Johnson from spreading the misinformation.
  • After Mexico, the next five most ignorant countries are, in order, India, Brazil, Peru, New Zealand, and Colombia.
  • After Sweden, the next five least ignorant countries are, in order, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
  • “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read or write.” H.G. Wells. Not yet Herbert George; not yet.


  • “Perils of Perception.” Bobby Duffy, Ipsos MORI, March 2016.
  • “The Perils of Perception and the EU.” King’s College London, June 9, 2016.
  • “The Index of Ignorance.” Gwynne Dyer, August 8, 2016.
  • “Fraud, Error and Debt: Behavioural Insights Team Paper.” Cabinet Office, February 6, 2012.
  • “The Perils of Perception and the EU.” Ipsos MORI, June 9, 2016.
  • “U.S. Gets Second Highest Score in Ipsos’ Misperceptions Index.” Ipsos MORI, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


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