When it comes to estimating the size of demographic groups, Americans rarely get it right. In two recent YouGov polls, we asked respondents to guess the percentage (ranging from 0% to 100%) of American adults who are members of 43 different groups, including racial and religious groups, as well as other less frequently studied groups, such as pet owners and those who are left-handed.
When people’s average perceptions of group sizes are compared to actual population estimates, an intriguing pattern emerges: Amercians tend to vastly overestimate the size of minority groups. This holds for sexual minorities, including the proportion of gays and lesbians (estimate: 30%, true: 3%), bisexuals (estimate: 29%, true: 4%), and people who are transgender (estimate: 21%, true: 0.6%).
It also applies to religious minorities, such as Muslim Americans (estimate: 27%, true: 1%) and Jewish Americans (estimate: 30%, true: 2%). And we find the same sorts of overestimates for racial and ethnic minorities, such as Native Americans (estimate: 27%, true: 1%), Asian Americans (estimate: 29%, true: 6%), and Black Americans (estimate: 41%, true: 12%).
A parallel pattern emerges when we look at estimates of majority groups: People tend to underestimate rather than overestimate their size relative to their actual share of the adult population. For instance, we find that people underestimate the proportion of American adults who are Christian (estimate: 58%, true: 70%) and the proportion who have at least a high school degree (estimate: 65%, true: 89%).
The most accurate estimates involved groups whose real proportion fell right around 50%, including the percentage of American adults who are married (estimate: 55%, true: 51%) and have at least one child (estimate: 58%, true: 57%).
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. 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.