Italians are the most likely to be wrong on key social realities about their country, with the US the next worst. At the other end of the spectrum, the Swedes are the most accurate, followed by Germany.
We looked across 13 countries and over 50,000 interviews on 28 questions – asking people to guess at immigration levels, crime rates, teenage pregnancy, obesity levels, how happy people are, unemployment rates, smartphone ownership, and many other social realities – to find out who was most and least wrong.
And the Italians are worthy ‘winners’. They guessed that 49% of working-age Italians were unemployed, when in reality at the time it was 12%. They thought 30% of their country were immigrants, when the actual figure was 7%. They guessed 35% of people in Italy have diabetes, when in reality it’s only 5%
The US is not much better. Americans thought 17% of their population are Muslim, when the actual figure is around 1%. They guessed 24% of girls aged 15 to 19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is 2.1%
At the other end of the spectrum, Sweden is very accurate on some facts: for example, they guessed that 32% of prisoners in Sweden were immigrants, when the actual figure was 31%. But even the Swedes get a lot wrong: they guessed that 24% of the population were unemployed, when at the time it was 8%.
We also asked people who they think has the least accurate view of their own society. And the country that people picked out most often was the US, with an impressive 27% of the vote, way ahead of any other country.
And this is not just an unfair image from outside – Americans think this of themselves too: 49% of Americans expected their fellow country-folk to have the least accurate view of facts about their society.
The immediate question that springs to mind is… why? Why are some countries worse on these realities than others?
The main message from the book is that we’re wrong not just because of what we’re told – by the media, politicians and social media – but also how we think, our own many biases, for example, in looking for information that confirms our already held views, how we’re drawn to negative information and the way we think the past was better than it was.
But that still leaves the question of why misperceptions vary so much between countries. To help answer this, I looked at how measures of all sorts of national characteristics – on the quality of the media in each country, the openness of government, ratings of education systems, trust in politics and the media, and many others – related to our Misperceptions Index.
And the honest answer starts with a shrug – there are no clear-cut, full explanations for this global variety.
But there is one factor that does seem to be related: how ‘emotionally expressive’ people in the country are. This index was developed by Erin Meyer in her book The Culture Map and measures things like whether people in different cultures around the world tend to raise their voices, touch each other or laugh passionately when talking.
This may seem a strange set of characteristics to be related to how deluded we are about, for example, immigration levels. But we need to remember that our guesses at these questions are partly emotional – they send a message about what’s worrying us. If immigration is a big concern, we automatically pick a big number, even if in reality immigration levels are much lower.
Our misperceptions are about our emotions as much as our ignorance of the facts, and therefore it’s not surprising that more emotionally expressive countries have more exaggerated guesses. It’s the mental arithmetic equivalent of wild hand gestures and loud arguments.
Of course, we need to strenuously avoid stereotyping all Swedes and Germans as calculating and rational, compared with voluble and gesticulating Italians and Americans. Our emotional expressiveness is far from a complete explanation, and there are many exceptions.
Our errors are not completely set in our national culture, and we can do something about them. This is reinforced by one other possible explanation for why Sweden is the least wrong.
Sweden is of course the home of late, great Hans Rosling, where he is a national figure, and where his Gapminder foundation has been taking their teaching material on global realities into schools and workplaces for many years, to ‘dismantle misconceptions and promote a fact-based worldview’.
And this does seem to work, for some Swedes at least: in a follow-up survey among Swedes who got various facts correct, asking how they knew the right answers, ‘Hans Rosling’ was a common response.
Of course, not every country can have their own Hans Rosling, and it’s probably no coincidence that a culture like Sweden was lucky enough to produce one. But it suggests we can improve our understanding of our countries and the world, with effort and invention. Our misperceptions are important to understand, but they’re not inevitable.
The Perils of Perception – Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything is published 6th September by Atlantic Books. Bobby Duffy is Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, and soon to be Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London