Have you got your facts right?

Life in Spain Mon, 3 Nov 2014
Global survey

What percentage of the population do you think are immigrants in Spain?

Out of every 100 people in Spain how many do you think are over 65?

These are two of the questions on Ipsos MORI’s new global survey, ‘The Perils of Perception’. The survey highlights the misconceptions of the public across 14 countries in relation to the make-up of their populations and the scale of key social issues.

Other questions relate to teenage pregnancy, the number of Christians and Muslims, the percentage out of work and how many people voted in the last election.

All these are subjects that feed newspaper headlines and taproom tittle tattle. Not surprisingly the public are incredibly wrong in relation to what they believe the facts to be. And it’s not just one country that’s to blame. Different countries have a lot in common when it comes to spreading misinformation.

So, for example people selected the percentage of the population they think are immigrants in their country:

Country

Correct answer in %

The average answer in %

Australia

28

35

Sweden

16

23

South Korea

2

10

Japan

2

10

Germany

13

23

Spain

12

23

Great Britain

13

24

Poland

1.75

14

Canada

21

35

Hungary

2

16

France

10

28

Belgium

10

29

US

13

32

Italy

7

30

You can see from this table that Italy and the US are the two countries with the most significant difference between perception and reality. Most accurate were the populations of Australia and Sweden.  

The countries with perceptions closest to reality overall include Sweden (1), Germany (2), Japan (3), Spain (4) and Great Britain (5). Bottom of the pile in 14th place was Italy just below the US in 13th position.

Some more headlines

Although some countries are worse than others, confused perceptions do seem to be a global problem. Here is a small selection of the major miscalculations:

  • Across the 14 countries people, on average, think that 15% of  teenagers aged 15 – 19 give birth every year, in contrast to the average official estimate of 1.2%
  • Across almost every country people hugely over estimate the number of Muslims who live there. The average guess is 16% compared to 3%
  • The majority-Christian countries tend to underestimate the number of people living there who count themselves to be Christian
  • People think that immigration is almost twice what it really is across the 14 countries
  • We think that the population is much older than it really is
  • People tend to estimate that unemployment is much worse than it really is

The findings are based upon 11,527 interviews conducted in August 2014 and the results have been compiled into what the authors call an ‘index of ignorance’.  

Try the survey for yourself

You can try the survey for yourself. It’s quick and easy to do and shows very clearly how we are influenced by the messages that are presented to us through the media: Perils of Perception Quiz

It tells you immediately whether you are right or wrong and what the correct answer is. It also tells you what the majority of respondents from each country indicated as being the right answer.

Of course, having read this article you already have an idea of where the public tends to make its mistakes.

Getting back to the facts

The questions that Ipso chose were selected specifically because these are areas that are causing controversy across the globe. Immigration is a very hot issue, sufficiently hot to be changing the nature of political parties in some major European countries.

Politicians are manipulating the mistaken beliefs to their own ends. Rather than using their position to correct the misleading perceptions, they are building on them, consolidating them and drawing up their manifestos to satisfy them.  

Having the right facts is crucial if people are to be able to vote with vision rather than misguided perception. This survey demonstrates clearly that the right facts are not what the general population currently have at their fingertips.

More information

Perceptions are not reality: Things the world gets wrong

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