Americans overestimate the size of smaller groups, underestimate the size of larger groups

Recent YouGov survey data shows Americans have a hard time estimating the population of a number of groups:

When people’s average perceptions of group sizes are compared to actual population estimates, an intriguing pattern emerges: Americans tend to vastly overestimate the size of minority groups. This holds for sexual minorities, including the proportion of gays and lesbians (estimate: 30%, true: 3%), bisexuals (estimate: 29%, true: 4%), and people who are transgender (estimate: 21%, true: 0.6%).

It also applies to religious minorities, such as Muslim Americans (estimate: 27%, true: 1%) and Jewish Americans (estimate: 30%, true: 2%). And we find the same sorts of overestimates for racial and ethnic minorities, such as Native Americans (estimate: 27%, true: 1%), Asian Americans (estimate: 29%, true: 6%), and Black Americans (estimate: 41%, true: 12%)…

A parallel pattern emerges when we look at estimates of majority groups: People tend to underestimate rather than overestimate their size relative to their actual share of the adult population. For instance, we find that people underestimate the proportion of American adults who are Christian (estimate: 58%, true: 70%) and the proportion who have at least a high school degree (estimate: 65%, true: 89%)…

Misperceptions of the size of minority groups have been identified in prior surveys, which observers have often attributed to social causes: fear of out-groups, lack of personal exposure, or portrayals in the media. Yet consistent with prior research, we find that the tendency to misestimate the size of demographic groups is actually one instance of a broader tendency to overestimate small proportions and underestimate large ones, regardless of the topic. 

I wonder how much this might be connected to a general sense of innumeracy. Big numbers can be difficult to understand and the United States has over 330,000,000 residents. Percentages and absolute numbers regarding certain groups are not always provided. I am more familiar with some of these percentages and numbers because my work requires it but it does not come up in all fields or settings.

Additionally, where would this information be taught or regularly shared? Civics classes alongside information about government structures and national history? Math classes as examples of relevant information? On television programs or in print materials? At political events or sports games? I would be interesting in making all of this more publicly visible so not just those who read the Statistical Abstract of the United States or have Census.gov as a top bookmark know this information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s