Perception Is Not Reality (Most Of The Time)

A new Ipsos global survey shows how wrong the public in fourteen countries is about the scale of the basic make-up of their populations. The overall perceptions of their country on these measures, versus the realities, just don’t add up, says the report, causing the public to be misinformed on what it surmises or advocates on various topics or issues.

For the 14 countries surveyed, Ipsos asked respondents to ‘guesstimate’ certain verifiable facts as a percentage or as a true/false statement, and then compared these perceptions to the reality. A country’s accuracy is ranked by comparing these perceptions to the verified facts.

Perceptions versus Realities… in the US, says the report, we get a lot of things very wrong:

  • Ageing population: we over-estimate the US population as much older than it actually is… the average estimate is that 35.9% of the population is 65+, when it is in fact only 14%... a perception gap of -21.9 points.
  • Christians: Americans think 55.7% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 78%%... a perception gap of -22.3 points.
  • Muslims: we hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims in the US… thinking that 15% of people are Muslims when the actual figure is 1%... a perception gap of -14.4 points.
  • Unemployment: Americans over-estimate that nearly 32.1% of the working age population is unemployed when the actual figure is much lower at 6%... a perception gap of -26.1 points.
  • Murder rate: Americans are wrong on their estimation of murder rate, with 51% saying it is rising (incorrect), whereas 30% think it is falling (correct) and 18% say they don’t know… a perception gap of -21 points.
  • Teenage pregnancy: Americans over-estimate that 23.9% of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3.1%... a perception gap of -20.8 points.
  • Immigration: Americans over-estimate that 32.3% of the population are immigrants while the real figure is 13%... a perception gap of -19.3 points.
  • Life expectancy: Americans underestimate our life expectancy thinking the average for a child born in 2014 will be 78.1 years, when the actual estimate is 80 years… a perception gap of -1.9 points.

But the rest of the world gets it wrong too, explains the report…

  • 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. Germans think that 14% of teenage girls give birth each year when it’s actually only 0.4% (35x the actual figure).
  • Muslims: people across just about all countries hugely overestimate the proportion of their population that is Muslim: the average guess across the countries is 16% when the actual proportion is 3%. People in France think 31% of the population is Muslim, when the actual figure is only 8%. In Australia people estimate it at 18%, when the actual proportion is only 2%
  • Christians: 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%
  • Immigration: across the 14 countries, the public thinks 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%.
  • Ageing population: the average estimate is that 39% of the population is 65+, when only 18% are. Italians are particularly wrong on this… on average, they think 48% are 65+, when it is actually 21%.
  • Unemployment: people tend to greatly overestimate the extent of unemployment in their countries. The average unemployment 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%.
  • Life expectancy: across the 14 countries measured, 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.
  • 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 Country Accuracy Rankings: Perceptions versus Realities




Sweden, Most Accurate








Great Britain














South Korea


United States


Italy, Least Accurate

Source: Ipsos-Mori, November 2014

For additional information from Ipsos, from the MORI Perils of Perception Survey, please visit here.


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