Australians get it wrong about everything from teen pregnancy to murder rates, demonstrating how often perceptions can lag reality, a new global survey from Ipsos has found.

If the Australian perception of social issues was correct, we would live in a nation with more unemployed people, Muslims, murderers, a spate of teenage pregnancies and lots of older people. The facts are quite different.

The report (across14 countries) highlights how wrong the public can be about the basic make-up of their populations and the scale of key social issues.

In Australia we get a lot of things very wrong:

  1. Teenage pregnancy: Australians think one in six (15%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 2%.
  2. Muslims: we hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims in Australia – we think almost one in five Australian people are Muslims (18%) when the actual figure is 2% (one in 20).
  3. Christians: in contrast, we underestimate the proportion of Christians – we think 45% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 61%.
  4. Ageing population: we think the Australian population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population is 65+, when it is in fact only 14%.
  5. Voting: we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last federal election – the average guess is 84% when the official turnout was somewhat higher at 93%.
  6. Unemployment: we think nearly a quarter (23%) of the working age population is unemployed when the actual figure is much lower at 6%.
  7. Murder rates: we also overestimate the murder rate, with 55% saying it is rising (which is incorrect), and only 19% correctly thinking it is falling.
  8. Immigration: we were one of the better countries in our estimation of the proportion of the population that are immigrants (35%), which is reasonably close to the actual figure of 28%.
  9. Life expectancy: we are, however, the most accurate when it comes to estimating life expectancy, thinking the average for a child born in 2014 will be 82 years, with the actual estimate being 82 years.


Ipsos Social Research Institute Director David Elliott said:“These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making.  For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of unemployment and the real proportion of those aged 65 years and over.

“This is the first international study to look at these misperceptions across a range of issues and countries – and it shows Australia is far from alone in being wrong.  In fact we’re among the better informed countries – but there are still huge gaps between perceptions and reality on a number of key issues in Australia.”

Australia ranks 9th on the ‘Index of Ignorance’, which was calculated by looking across the full set of questions and how each country responded, then identifying a clear pattern in how close to reality the public in each country are.

The table below shows that the country with the best understanding of these population characteristics and social issues is Sweden – and the country with the least accurate view is Italy.


Ranking Country
1 Italy Least accurate
2 US
3 South Korea
4 Poland
5 Hungary
6 France
7 Canada
8 Belgium
9 Australia
10 Great Britain
11 Spain
12 Japan
13 Germany
14 Sweden Most accurate


The Ipsos study found that the rest of the world was just as wrong as Australia.All countries surveyed overestimated their levels of immigration, the proportion of Muslims, the proportion of the population aged over 65, while unemployment levels were hugely over estimated.

The majority of countries underestimated the number of Christians in their country, all countries underestimated the proportion of the population who voted in the last national election and youth unemployment is underestimated everywhere except Spain.


In further detail:

  1. 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.  People in the US guess at a particularly high rate of teenage births, estimating it at 24% of all girls aged 15-19 when it’s actually 3%.  But other countries with very low rates of teenage births are further out proportionally: for example, Germans think that 14% of teenage girls give birth each year when it’s actually only 0.4% (35 times the actual figure).
  2. 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%.  For example, on average people in France think 31% of the population is Muslim, when the actual figure is only 8%.  In the US the average guess is 15 times the actual proportion: people estimate it at 15%, when the actual proportion is only 1%.
  3. Christians: in contrast, 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%.
  4. Ageing population: we think the population is much older than it actually is – 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 nearly half the population (48%) is 65+, when it is actually 21%.
  5. Voting: every country in the study underestimates the proportion of the electorate who voted in their last major election.  The average guess is that 58% voted, when in fact 72% did.  The French in particular are pessimistic about the extent of democratic engagement, estimating that only 57% of the electorate voted in the Presidential election, when in fact 80% did.
  6. Unemployment: people tend to greatly overestimate the extent of unemployment in their countries.  The average 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%.
  7. 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 British are the most likely to have an accurate view of murder rate trends: 49% think it’s falling and only 25% think it’s rising.
  8. Immigration: across the 14 countries, the public thinks immigration is more than 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 thinks 32% of the population are immigrants when the actual is 13%; in Italy the public thinks 30% are immigrants when it is actually 7%; and in Belgium the public thinks it is 29% when it is actually 10%.
  9. Life expectancy: this is one area where on average we have a much better grasp of reality.  Across the 14 countries, the average life expectancy for a child born this year is estimated to be 80 years, when across these countries as a whole it is 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.


Technical note:

The Ipsos ‘Perils of Perception Survey’ saw 11,527 interviews conducted between August 12th – August 26th, 2014. The survey was conducted in 14 countries around the world via the Ipsos Online Panel system in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain and the United States of America.

In the US and Canada respondents are aged 18-64, and 16-64 in all other countries. Approximately 1,000+ individuals were surveyed in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Great Britain and the United States of America. Approximately 500+ individuals were surveyed in the remaining countries. Where results do not sum to 100, this may be due to computer rounding, multiple responses or the exclusion of ‘don’t knows’ or not stated responses. Data was weighted to match the profile of the population.