Perils of Perception – Perceptions Are Not Reality: What the World Gets Wrong

Australia the sixth most accurate country on the Ipsos “Index of Ignorance”

Ipsos’ latest “Perils of Perception” survey highlights how wrong the public across 40 countries is about key global issues and features of the population in their country.

The key patterns in what the world gets wrong and right are:

  • Most countries think their population is much more Muslim than it actually is – and that the Muslim population is increasing at an incredible rate;
  • All countries think their population is less happy than they actually say they are;
  • Most countries are more tolerant on homosexuality, abortion and pre-marital sex than they think they are; and
  • Almost all countries think wealth is more evenly distributed than it actually is.

In Australia we get some things very wrong – but some things right…

1. Current Muslim population: we hugely overestimate the proportion of Muslims in the Australian population – we think that around 1 in 10 Australians are Muslim, when actually fewer than 1 in 40 are. The findings show we think that 12% of the population is Muslim, when actually only 2.4% are.

2. Future Muslim population: we also think that the Muslim population is growing to a much greater extent than it actually is. We think that 21% of our population will be Muslim by 2020, when projections from the Pew Research Center suggest Muslims will only make up around 3% of the Australian population by then.

3. Happiness: we think our fellow Australians are much more miserable than surveys of happiness show. We guess that only 53% of Australians would say they are very or rather happy, when actually 82% say they are in a recent representative survey.

4. Homosexuality: we also think people are less accepting of homosexuality than they actually report in surveys. We think that around a third (36%) would find homosexuality morally unacceptable, when 1 in 5 (19%) actually say that.

5. Sex before marriage: we are also well off the mark when guessing at Australians’ opinions on sex before marriage – we think that 26% of the population find it morally unacceptable when in fact only 13% do.

6. Abortion: we also think more people are anti-abortion than they actually are – we think that 40% find abortion morally unacceptable, when only 24% say they do.

7. Wealth of the bottom 70%: we asked people to guess what proportion of total wealth the least wealthy 70% in Australia owned – and we are one of the very few countries that have an accurate view of how unequal we are. This majority of the population actually owns only 24% of wealth in Australia – and we guess that they own 24%.

8. Home owners: we are way out on the extent of home ownership in Australia. We think that under half (44%) of households in Australia own their own home, when in fact two thirds do (65%).

9. Health spending: we think we spend twice as much as we actually do on our health. We think we spend 21% of our total GDP on health expenditure (including private healthcare as well as Medicare), when in fact we only spend 10%. If our guess was right, this would be the equivalent of an extra $177 billion spending on health.

10. Current population: like many other countries, we are pretty accurate on how large our population is in Australia – our average guess is 24 million and the actual population is around 24.5 million.

11. Future population: We are also unusually good at guessing our future population. We asked people what the population of their countries would be by 2050, to compare with UN projections – and Australians were pretty close to the mark, guessing 35 million when the UN projection comes in at 33.5 million.

12. Trump: Fieldwork for the survey was conducted in the month before the presidential election in the US – so we asked who people thought would win. And like the vast majority of countries – along with nearly all pundits – we were wrong: 58% thought Clinton would win and only 17% saw the Trump victory coming.

Australia is far from the worst in identifying realities and predicting the future – in fact we are the sixth most accurate country in the Ipsos “Index of Ignorance”. As an individual, see how you compare by taking the Ipsos Perils of Perception Quiz.

Looking across the 40 countries included, many are much more wrong…

1. Current Muslim population: many countries over-estimate their Muslim population by a staggering amount. For example, in France the average guess is that 31% of the population is Muslim when it is actually 7.5%. Other Western European countries, such as Germany, Italy and Belgium, are also massively out. The US and Canada are similarly inaccurate with both having average guesses of 17% against actual figures of 1% and 3.2% respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, very high Muslim population countries underestimate their Muslim population: for example, in Turkey the actual Muslim population is 98%, but the average estimate is 81%.

2. Future Muslim population: similar countries hugely overestimate the levels of growth in Muslim populations over the next four years. The average guess in France is that 40% of the population will be Muslim in 2020 when the actual projection is 8.3% (an increase of just 0.8% from the current level of 7.5%). Italy, Belgium and Germany also greatly overestimate the growth in their Muslim population. The US is also miles out, with an average guess of 23% compared with the actual projection being 1.1%.

3. Happiness: Globally, we are very pessimistic about levels of happiness. Across the 40 countries in the study, the average guess was that 44% of people say they are happy, when the actual figure is nearly double that at 86%. The average guesses in Hong Kong (28%) and South Korea (24%) are incredibly low, when actual happiness levels in recent surveys are 89% and 90% respectively.

4. Homosexuality: people tend to underestimate the acceptance of homosexuality, particularly in European countries. In the Netherlands the average guess is that 36% of the population finds homosexuality morally unacceptable, when actually only 5% do. There is a similar finding in the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain. In Indonesia, a country that reports almost universal opposition to homosexuality (93%), the average guess of 79% falls 14% short of the actual figure. The study highlights the wide range of views on homosexuality between countries both in terms of actual views and what people think their country thinks. For example, in Russia, people guess that 79% find homosexuality unacceptable compared to the actual figure of 72%. Conversely in Norway, on average people think that only 22% of their population would find homosexuality unacceptable (the actual figure is much lower at 5%).

5. Sex before marriage: people in the Netherlands are also most likely to underestimate how tolerant their country is on sex before marriage. On average people in the Netherlands said that they think 34% of the population would find unmarried sex morally unacceptable compared with the actual figure of just 5%. In Turkey, a country where opposition to unmarried sex is very high (91%), the average guess was considerably lower at 72%.

6. Abortion: when asked what percentage of their country’s population believes having an abortion is morally unacceptable, people tend to overestimate the actual figure. For example, in the Netherlands people think 37% of the population view abortion as morally unacceptable, when it’s actually only 8%. The US is unusual in having a very accurate view of public opinion: people guess that 48% are against abortion, when surveys say 49% are. This accuracy is perhaps due to the high profile discussion on abortion in the US.

7. Wealth of the bottom 70%: people tend to overestimate what percentage of a country’s wealth is owned by the poorest 70%. On average, just 15% of total wealth is owned by the bottom 70% across these countries – but the average guess is almost twice that at 29%. Some countries are incredibly inaccurate: Indians think this group owns 39% of the country’s wealth when actually only 10% do. The US is also significantly out: Americans think the bottom 70% own 28% of the country’s wealth, when it’s actually a quarter of that at 7%.

8. Home owners: Globally, we tend to massively underestimate how many households own or are buying their own home. We think just 49% of people own or are buying their home, when in fact 68% are owner-occupiers across these countries. India is the most wrong, thinking that only 44% own/are buying their home, when in fact 87% are. This is likely to reflect the online nature of the sample in the study: there are significant and growing pressures on home ownership in the middle class urban centres in India, but ownership is very high outside of these areas.

9. Health spending: Generally, people think our national spending on health is much higher than it actually is. Across all the countries in the study, we think that 21% of our GDP goes on health spending, when actually only 8% does. The least accurate countries are Indonesia and Malaysia who each think that almost 40% is spent on health, when the actuals are low single figures, for example only 3% in Indonesia.

10. Current population: one of the few areas of the study where people were very accurate was guessing at their population size. In most cases people were within 5% of the actual figure and German respondents, on average, exactly identified their actual population of 82 million. Singapore and Hong Kong are both out by 10% with Hong Kong guessing 10% over and Singapore 10% under than the actual figures.

11.Future population: While respondents tended to be very accurate guessing current population figures, it was a different story for population projections for 2050. For example, Taiwan expects to have a significantly higher population in 2050 than they do now – but the UN expects the country’s population to shrink: they therefore expect to be 32% bigger than the UN expects. The US on the other hand is one of the countries expected to grow more than Americans expect: the UN estimate is that there will be 389 million in the US by 2050, but the average guess is they’ll only have 351 million residents, 38 million fewer people, and a 10% lower population. Britain and the Philippines are the only two countries to get projections spot on: for example, Britain expects its population to grow to 75 million from its current base of around 63 million, and the UN projection says the same.

12. Trump: Only three countries had more people saying that Donald Trump would win rather than Hillary Clinton: Russia, Serbia and China. And Russia stands out as particularly sure of a Trump victory: 50% said Trump and only 29% picked Clinton. The shock that greeted the result around the world is no surprise when you see how sure many countries were that Clinton would win: 80%+ thought Clinton would win in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, South Korea and Norway. The US itself was among the least sure – but even here people were twice as likely to pick Clinton (50%) than Trump (26%).

Looking across the five questions on factual realities, there are clear patterns in which countries have a more accurate view of their countries. To capture this, Ipsos has calculated the “Index of Ignorance”, as shown in the table below.

India receives the dubious honour of being the most inaccurate in its perceptions on these issues, with China and the US also high up the list. The Netherlands is the most accurate, followed by Great Britain, with South Korea in third.

Ranking Country

1 India                                                       Least accurate
2 China
3 Taiwan
4 South Africa
5 US
6 Brazil
7 Thailand
8 Singapore
9 Turkey
10 Indonesia
11 Mexico
12 Canada
13 Montenegro
14 Russia
15 Serbia
16 Philippines
17 Hong Kong
18 Israel
19 Denmark

20 Argentina
21 France
22 Vietnam
23 Peru
24 Spain
25 Chile
26 Hungary
27 Japan
28 Belgium
29 Poland
30 Colombia
31 Sweden
32 Norway
33 Italy
34 Germany
35 Australia
36 Malaysia
37 Czech Republic
38 South Korea
39 Great Britain
40 Netherlands                                      Most accurate

Commenting on the findings, Ipsos Social Research Institute, Sydney, Director, David Elliott, said:
“Across all 40 countries in the study, each population gets a lot wrong. We know from this study and previous studies that we are often most incorrect on factors that are widely discussed in the media and those that are of concern to us. The huge overestimation of current and future proportions of our population that are Muslims is a classic example of this.

“But in this new study we also show that we’re often unduly pessimistic about how happy people are and our tolerance on controversial issues such as homosexuality, sex before marriage and abortion. This is important, as what we think is the norm can often be important in shaping our views. Also described as the ‘bandwagon effect’, it is one of the many mental shortcuts or biases we have and the result is that we often adopt a belief we think is held by many others.

“Our over-estimation of negative views on homosexuality is an interesting finding. Gay marriage is a hot topic in Australia at the moment, particularly as it is taking high priority in political debate with one side calling for parliament to make the decision and the other wanting a plebiscite. Is this political debate and media coverage of the issue leading us to believe there must be a significant proportion of the population that is against homosexuality? Or do we simply think that as a population we are more conservative than we really are?” Elliott said.

“We also get facts wrong that will make us focus on some issues more than they perhaps deserve. For example, we tend to think our populations are much less likely to own their own home than they actually are, which is likely driven by discussions of housing affordability in most of our capital cities and beyond. We have received the message loud and clear that pressure on housing and affordability are serious issues, but we’ve underestimated how many still own their home.

“There are multiple reasons for the errors we see in people’s estimations – from our struggle with simple maths and proportions, to media coverage of issues, to social psychology explanations of our mental shortcuts or biases. It is also clear from our ‘Index of Ignorance’ that the countries that tend to do worst have relatively low internet penetrations: given this is an online survey, this will reflect the fact that this more middle-class and connected population think the rest of their countries are more like them than they really are,” he said.

Technical note:

• These are the findings of the Ipsos Perils of Perception Survey 2016. 27,250 interviews were conducted between 22nd September – 6th November 2016.

• The survey is conducted in 40 countries around the world, via the Ipsos Online Panel system in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, USA and Vietnam. The following countries used either online or face-to-face methodologies: Czech Republic, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway and Serbia.

Approximately 1000 individuals aged 16-64 or 18-64 were surveyed in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China,

France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Spain, USA, and approximately 800 individuals aged 18-64 were surveyed in the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Serbia. Approximately 500 individuals aged 16-64 or 18-64 were surveyed in the remaining countries.

The “actual” data for each question is taken from a variety of verified sources including The World Values Survey and Pew Research Center. A full list of sources/links to the actual data can be found here. Attitudinal data (where existing sources were not available) was collected in separate surveys conducted between September and November 2016. Data was collected using a combination of online, telephone or face-to-face methodologies.

• 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 are weighted to match the profile of the population.

The Perils of Perception report can be found at: http://ipsos.com.au/perils-of-perception-2016/