Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
A new survey shows we are off-base with perceptions on religion, wealth, and other details of our neighbors’ lives.
How informed are Americans? A recent survey from the U.K.- and Ireland-based market-research firm Ipsos Mori looks at a number of common fallacies espoused by average Americans. The aim of the survey—aptly named “Perils of Perception”—is to demonstrate national, and even global, misconceptions of key issues for 33 countries around the world.
What Americans get wrong
Although the U.S. ranks as one of the least-ignorant nations according to the survey, Americans grossly misunderstand some of the basic characteristics of their population. Take household wealth, for example. While the average American thinks that the wealthiest one percent own 57 percent of household income, the reality is less stark: America’s wealthiest actually own 37 percent.
Americans also tend to overestimate how many citizens between the ages of 25-34 still live with their parents: Their estimate is 34 percent, while the reality is 12 percent.
When it comes to determining the average age of U.S. citizens, or how many live in rural areas, Americans also overestimate the truth—albeit by a smaller margin. They also tend to slightly underestimate the number of Americans with internet access.
Surprisingly, for all the discussion of the obesity epidemic in our current zeitgeist, Americans strongly underestimate the number of citizens who are obese or overweight. While most Americans seem to think that half the population has reached an unhealthy weight, the reality is that around 66 percent of Americans fit these categories.
Yet another misconception concerns the number of immigrants in the U.S. In truth, only 14 percent of Americans are immigrants (i.e. not born in the U.S.), according to data from the U.N. But Americans still think that immigrants make up around 33 percent of the population.
The biggest fallacy among Americans, however, has to do with religion. While 16 percent of Americans report being unaffiliated with a religion, the average perception is that 40 percent are not religious.*
Americans are pretty well-informed when it comes to women in the workforce. In fact, they were able to accurately guess the percentage of working women in the U.S. (63 percent) and came close to estimating the correct percentage of female politicians (19 percent).
America versus the rest of the world
Overall, we shouldn’t be too disappointed in our fellow citizens. Only four nations were deemed “less ignorant” than America: South Korea, Ireland, Poland, and China. Meanwhile, the United States beat out nations like the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, and France in this department.
The survey also shows that many global citizens aren’t properly informed about the major issues in our world today. In fact, the survey reports that 31 of the 33 countries studied overestimated the number of immigrants and atheists in their nations. And yet another 29 countries underestimated the level of obesity.
So while some Americans might want to brush up on their statistics—especially before next year’s election comes around—all of the world’s citizens could stand to learn a little more about one another.
*CORRECTION: This post previously transposed statistics about Americans unaffiliated with religion and the perceived number of Americans unaffiliated with a religion.