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Americans Vastly Overestimate The Size Of Minority Groups, Poll Finds

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMar 17 2022, 17:23 UTC
American flag at sunset

Don't get smug, non-Americans, it's not clear your own country would do better. Image credit: Anna Om/Shutterstock.com

A poll by data analytic firm YouGov has found that Americans tend to vastly overestimate the size of minority groups, including several ethnicities and sexualities.

"Americans tend to vastly overestimate the size of minority groups. This holds for sexual minorities, including the proportion of gays and lesbians (estimate: 30 percent, true: 3 percent), bisexuals (estimate: 29 percent, true: 4 percent), and people who are transgender (estimate: 21 percent, true: 0.6 percent)," YouGov said of the results.

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

Though fear of "other" groups could play a part in the results, YouGov put it mainly down to our own inability to estimate small or large numbers.

"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," they wrote in a blog post.

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"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."

They point out that black Americans tend to overestimate the number of black Americans in the US (52 percent estimate vs 12 percent truth) while non-black Americans estimate that 39 percent of Americans are black. Similarly, first-generation immigrants tend to overestimate the number of first-generation immigrants, guessing higher than non-first-generation immigrants. The trend held true for other groups, such as left-handers. 

They reference a 2017 meta-analysis that found that when people were making estimations and their own experience told them the number would be particularly high or low, they tend to assume that their estimate must be biased by their own experience. When met with this, people tend to adjust their own initial estimate towards what they see as the mean group size – or 50 percent. In this study, for example, Americans were more likely to underestimate what proportion of the population was Christian – 70 percent of people are Christian in America, while the estimations averaged out to 58 percent.

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Though you may think that having an inflated view of (for example) the number of immigrants in the country may affect certain Americans' views of immigration policy, YouGov points out that recent studies have suggested that correcting people's numbers with the actual numbers did not shift their attitude towards immigration.


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