Things are getting better, but we think they’re getting worse.
Our pessimistic nation is not alone in that disconnect, according to the latest Ipsos “Perils of Perception” survey that details the truth behind the world’s most common misperceptions. We think things are worse than they are across a broad range of issues such as murder rates, teen births, alcohol consumption, vaccine mythology and terrorism. In short, Americans in particular are overwhelmingly ill informed when it comes to public policy and sociological issues that impact their society.
“Citizens across the globe overestimate the problems in their country,” says Chris Jackson, an Ipsos researcher who analyzed the results of the Perils of Perception survey. “In America, perceptions rarely match reality.”
Most Americans (52%) believe the murder rate has risen since 2000 and another 26% think it has stayed the same. In fact, the rate has declined by 11%. And many Americans also erroneously think that one in three people in jail or detention are immigrants, when actually, natural born citizens are more likely to be the ones who are jailed.
Media overemphasis on murders or violence in major cities such as Chicago might lead to the skewing of the reality when it comes to actual murder rates. Chicago, for example, is ranked 34th – nowhere close to number one – in the nation in terms of the numbers of murders adjusted for population.
NPR has looked into the reasons for this and essentially blames popular media for covering crime more frequently and in new ways. Plus, graphic and vivid Facebook Live videos and other video often show crimes happening whereas in the past, viewing such crimes was nearly impossible for the average person.
Case in point: When it comes to immigrants and violence, several studies have shown that native-born Americans commit more crimes and are jailed more frequently than newcomers. That said, according to reports, it is possible that President Donald J. Trump’s early presidential focus on discussions of immigrants and violence have led to media coverage of his comments and thus skewed beliefs in conjecture rather than fact.
“People are bad at generalizing from specific stories to society-wide trends,” adds Jackson. “Given the bias of media to promote sensational stories, most Americans see lots of reports about horrible events. People then assume those horrible events are common because they hear about them all the time. “
Some 38 countries were polled, and the United States came in 23rd in terms of knowing the truth.
The study covered a wide range of topics. People in most countries, and often Americans in particular, consistently think things are worse than they are.
Here are other findings from the study:
Terrorist deaths– While the U.S. has gotten slightly safer since 2001, over a third of Americans (37%) believe more people have died from terrorist attacks in the last 15 years than did in the 15 years prior to the September 11th attacks.
Vaccines and autism–Nearly one in five Americans (19%) incorrectly believe that vaccines can cause autism, a claim that has been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community. A majority of Americans (52%) are correct in believing that there is no link.
Teenage births–Americans guess that 24% of women and girls aged 15 to 19 give birth each year. In reality, that belief is twelve times the correct number (2.1%), and significantly lower than birth rates in other countries, including Brazil (6.7%) and Argentina (6.4%).
Diabetes– Americans guess that 34% of people aged 20 to 79 have diabetes, which is more than three times the actual figure (11%).
Alcohol– America has a global image as a land of heavy drinkers. When you look at the responses across all countries, Americans are the second most likely to be picked out as the highest consumers of alcohol from the 38 countries, behind only Russia. Even half of Americans (53%) self-identify the U.S. as one of the booziest nations. The U.S. actually ranks 13th among all the countries surveyed.