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Americans And Europeans Hugely Overestimate Our Muslim Populations

Americans think 17% of the country is Muslim. Wherever did people get that (embarrassingly wrong) idea?

Americans And Europeans Hugely Overestimate Our Muslim Populations
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Ask yourself this: What percentage of your country’s population is Muslim? Whatever your answer, chances are it’s wrong. That’s because, when asked the same question, respondents across the U.S. and Europe consistently overestimated the number. And not just by a little bit, either.

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The findings are part of a poll conducted by Ipsos MORI, called Perils of Perception. The survey was made across 1,000 participants in 40 countries around the world, and included questions about both the current proportion of Muslims living in a country and the projected number in 2020. People were way off on both, with only Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia (all Muslim-majority countries) underestimating the figure.

France came out on top of the ignorance table, guessing that 40% of people in France are Muslim. The actual number is just 8.3%. Let’s think about that for a second. In France, people think that almost half of the country’s population is Muslim. The U.S. comes close, at seventh most wrong. There, respondents estimated the Muslim population at 17%. The reality? One percent, according to the data sourced by MORI (PDF).

The takeaway here is that people are really bad at understanding the world. Every year since 2009, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducts a poll that asks U.S. residents how much of the federal budget goes on foreign aid. Last year’s wildly inaccurate guess was–on average–26%. The actual figure? Less than 1%.

It’s easy to see why we are so far off in our guesses. TV and international news prefer the sensational over the true. Boring news doesn’t sell ads. Or rather, it doesn’t attract clicks. Writer David Cain, author of the Raptitude blog, puts it like this:

The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.

Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful.

Between that and our tendency to make decisions based on emotions, we’re terrible at knowing what is going on outside our immediate sphere of life. But there’s a silver lining. Because we’re so bad at perceiving the state of the world, often the reality is better than we think. Here are a couple more points from the MORI poll to help you get through the rest of the week: People in all countries think their population is less happy than they actually say they are, and most countries are more tolerant on homosexuality, abortion, and premarital sex than people guess.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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