Bias and ignorance in demographic perception


When it comes to knowledge of demographic facts, misinformation appears to be the norm. Americans massively overestimate the proportions of their fellow citizens who are immigrants, Muslim, LGBTQ, and Latino, but underestimate those who are White or Christian. Previous explanations of these estimation errors have invoked topic-specific mechanisms such as xenophobia or media bias. We reconsidered this pattern of errors in the light of more than 30 years of research on the psychological processes involved in proportion estimation and decision-making under uncertainty. In two publicly available datasets featuring demographic estimates from 14 countries, we found that proportion estimates of national demographics correspond closely to what is found in laboratory studies of quantitative estimates more generally. Biases in demographic estimation, therefore, are part of a very general pattern of human psychology—independent of the particular topic or demographic under consideration—that explains most of the error in estimates of the size of politically salient populations. By situating demographic estimates within a broader understanding of general quantity estimation, these results demand reevaluation of both topic-specific misinformation about demographic facts and topic-specific explanations of demographic ignorance, such as media bias and xenophobia.

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review