Americans often estimate other Americans inaccurately, it turns out

How many people do we think belong to a certain group?

Contemporary American politics has a tendency to focus on identity, as commentators and politicians assure us. Yet we may be thinking about this pretty badly, according to a new YouGov report.  If their poll is correct, Americans tend to massively overestimate some smaller group sizes while seriously underestimating larger ones.

As a futurist I’m fascinated by the results. What they reveal about contemporary American thinking suggests a lot of directions for politics and culture to take.

Here I’ll summarize the poll’s results, then offer some reflections.

YouGov surveyed around 2,000 people, asking them to estimate the proportion of Americans who belong to various groups.  They selected group identities across a number of domains: religion, sexuality, economics, race, education, geographical location, household details, behavior, and more.  Participants answered questions like “If you had to guess, what percentage of American adults are [x]”? with percentages.

Some caveats: first, this isn’t a massive survey.  I’d prefer a much larger one, with responses broken down into their own identities.  Second, we might disagree on the numbers YouGov selected to represent reality.  Polling on sexuality, for example, is notoriously variable and unreliable.  Determining if a person is a member of a given religion has some different options and results.  Racial identity gets into multi-racial complexity.

To the survey!

First, Americans tend to overestimate the actual size of minorities, especially those with the smallest numbers, and sometimes by a lot.  As the report’s header summarizes, “small subgroups of the population seem much larger to many Americans.”  Consider our sense of how large some of the smallest groups are:

Americans estimate populations_minorities top_YouGov_2022 March

20% of Americans are millionaires!  A third of Americans live in New York City!

What’s behind these wrong guesses? Just this slice of the results begs a lot of questions.

We can easily imagine a mix of media attention, political activism, and cultural shifts driving some views, such as the overestimation of transgender people, vegans/vegetarians, gun owners, first-generation immigrants, and black people. I can imagine representational biases within mainstream media leading to the over-prominence of California and New York, and perhaps the advanced degree number.

Other explanations may be based on some older cultural values. The misprision of veterans may be due to America’s military culture.  Similarly, our inflated wealthy numbers follows the American dream’s optimism.  I don’t know if high Catholic numbers are more due to Catholics overestimating their cohort or anti-Catholics fearing them.  Perhaps the grossly inflated union numbers are due to conservative media, right wing politics, or some kind of legacy view inherited from the mid-2oth-century, when a lot of Americans were actually union members.

Second, Americans underestimated actual majorities.  We think there exist fewer people than there really are who are Christian, read a book last year, make more than $25,000/year, have a driver’s license, own a smartphone, have ever flown on a plane, own a car, and who have attained a high school diploma:

Americans estimate populations_majorities_YouGov_2022 March

That’s an interesting take on technology, for a start. Americans are more into driving, smartphones, and planes than we think we are.  I am curious about that lowball, especially since most of those technologies are not new.  Do we have an outsized image of technological refuseniks?  How does this feed into cultural and political attitudes about tech?

The Christianity underestimate suggests several underlying causes. I can infer that some people have followed the secularization idea for a while and believe the decline of faith is happening faster than it is. I can also imagine Christians who see themselves as endangered, under attack from secular forces undercounting their own numbers.  And it might also be a logical response to overestimating the number of other faiths’ adherents seen above (Muslims+Jews+atheists totally 90%!).

Third, we’re not always wrong when we estimate how many Americans occupy various identities. We got some stuff right, or close enough, in the poll.  The numbers of people whose households make more than $100,000/year, for example, or those who are Republicans, who are married, have at least one child, voted in 2020, are white, and have a pet: we nailed these, compared to the others.  The COVID vaccination number isn’t bad, either:

Americans estimate populations_accurate middle_YouGov_2022 MarchTaken together, this paints a complicated picture of American attitudes.

There’s a futures orientation to these results, perhaps. The overestimation of some minorities – Latino, Asian – points to their growing numbers, while the underestimation of white people’s numbers suggests their decline.  The massive overestimate of trans numbers may similarly indicate a growing challenge to the assigned at birth gender binary.

We could also see an emerging politics from this, one that pays a lot of attention (positive and/or negative) to small groups. At the same time it’s one which sees economics in terms of very accessible success, with large numbers of wealthy people.

At this point some readers will cry out that I’m missing the real lesson, which is that Americans are often lousy with statistics and statistical thinking.  That’s also true.  You can see it in the general middle-ness of our estimates, tending to avoid numbers that are very small or very large.

The YouGov author, Taylor Orth, has an interesting take on this, worth reading in full:

When a person’s lived experience suggests an extreme value — such as a small proportion of people who are Jewish or a large proportion of people who are Christian — they often assume, reasonably, that their experiences are biased. In response, they adjust their prior estimate of a group’s size accordingly by shifting it closer to what they perceive to be the mean group size (that is, 50%). This can facilitate misestimation in surveys, such as ours, which don’t require people to make tradeoffs by constraining the sum of group proportions within a certain category to 100%.

This reasoning process — referred to as uncertainty-based rescaling — leads people to systematically overestimate the size of small values and underestimate the size of large values. It also explains why estimates of populations closer to 0% (e.g., LGBT people, Muslims, and Native Americans) and populations closer to 100% (e.g., adults with a high school degree or who own a car) are less accurate than estimates of populations that are closer to 50%, such as the percentage of American adults who are married or have a child. [emphases added]

If this uncertainty-based rescaling occurs, it’s something we should bear in mind as we assess large group’s collective action and culture.

I think there’s a lot to find in this study, and I’d like to hear your reactions.

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4 Responses to Americans often estimate other Americans inaccurately, it turns out

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Who are these people?

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    This makes fascism much easier to thrive in.

  3. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Education Evolving or in Ruins? | Rob Reynolds

  4. octordle says:

    At this point, some readers will say that I’m missing the real point, which is that most Americans aren’t very good with numbers and statistics. That, too, is true. Our estimates tend to be in the middle, and we try to avoid numbers that are very small or very big.

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