Perils of Perception – the 10 issues Kiwis get wrong

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The perceptions of New Zealanders on a number of issues – everything from obesity to immigration – are wrong, according to the latest Ipsos Perils of Perception survey.

The study highlights how wrong the public in 33 countries is about some key issues and features of the population in their country. The research also shows that New Zealanders’ knowledge of key country facts and figures is the least accurate of the developed countries in Ipsos’s Index of Ignorance.

“In New Zealand we get a lot of things very wrong,” says Ipsos NZ head of public affairs Nicola Legge.

  • The proportion of household wealth that the top 1% own: New Zealanders massively overestimate the proportion of household wealth that the wealthiest 1% own. The average guess is 50% when the actual figure is 18%. In fact, NZ was one of the least accurate on this out of any of the 29 countries included in this question. Interestingly, when asked what percentage they think the wealthiest 1% should own, the public say on average 27%, which was, in fact, above the actual figure.
  • Obesity: Weight is a growing public health issue, but the Ipsos survey suggests that across the globe we aren’t as worried about it as we should be. New Zealanders believe that 47% of those aged over 20 are overweight or obese, but the actual figure is much higher at 66%. This large difference means we are one of the least aware nations in regards to our levels of obesity with 17 countries underestimating their level of overweight and obesity by 16% or more, suggesting the frequent public and media discussion of the issue has failed to cut through and make people realise just how bad the problem is. Interestingly, our Australian neighbours were one of the more accurate, estimating the incidence of obesity among those aged over 20 at 51%, whereas the actual figure was higher at 62%.
  • The non-religious population: Whilst the rest of the world hugely over-estimates the proportion of atheists, agnostics and those who do not affiliate themselves with any religion, New Zealanders are more limited in their overestimation – the average guess is 49% when the actual figure is much lower (37%).
  • Immigration: New Zealanders believe that 37% of the population are immigrants, whereas the official estimate is two thirds of this at 25%. We were however one of the more accurate nations on this estimate.
  • Average age: New Zealanders also believe that the population is much older than it actually is, although we are third in terms of accuracy on this estimate. The average estimate is 45 years old, when the average Kiwi’s age is only 38. The widespread discussion of our ageing population seems to have stuck with people.
  • Population aged under 14: Despite the perception that the population is on average older than it actually is, New Zealanders also greatly overestimate the proportion of the population aged under 14, at 33% – much higher than the real figure of 20%.
  • Female politicians: New Zealanders significantly underestimate the number of female MPs. The average guess is 24% when the actual figure is 31%.
  • Female employment: New Zealanders seem to share a somewhat conservative view of women in the workplace with their Australian neighbours – on average we think 57% of working age women are in employment when the real figure is 69%. Only Germany, South Korea and Israel had larger underestimations of the proportion of women in work, whilst the Australians were slight more accurate at 55% vs. the reality of 66%.
  • Rural living: New Zealanders think that far more of us live in rural areas than really do – and by implication underestimate how urban our population is. On average, the public guess that 35% of the population lives in rural areas, when the actual figure is only 14%. We suspect that the high profile of farming in New Zealand and the high proportion of land in farming or bush makes people overestimate the number of people living in rural areas.
  • Internet access: The explosion in internet access has been well documented, but even so New Zealanders underestimate how widespread it is. On average, New Zealanders guess that eight in ten (80%) of us have access to the internet at home through a computer or mobile device, when the actual figure is 92%.

“In New Zealand there are many errors of perception, some of which, such as our views on wealth distribution, urbanisation and obesity, sit at the heart of how we see ourselves and present ourselves,” Legge said.

“Our views of obesity in particular are alarming. Despite ongoing debates about health and health spending, it seems we continue to be in denial about our weight. On the other hand, we are doing better than we think in terms of equality for women, with more female MPs and a greater proportion of women in the workforce than we give ourselves credit for. Our ranking among the top five for the inaccuracies of our perceptions perhaps reflects the attention we pay to the issues included in the survey, growing cognitive outsourcing, changing media habits and the way advertisers in particular reflect us back to ourselves.

“Our relative geographic isolation, small size and history mean we are less affected than many other nations by issues such as religious differences, wealth disparity and the equality of women. Humans are naturally cognitively biased to pay more attention to topics with which we are emotionally involved or which are front and centre of national debate. If we are not involved with a topic, we are less likely to recall the details of it.

“It is commonly accepted that high internet usage is likely to go hand in hand with increased cognitive outsourcing and the consumption of news in short bursts of top-level information that can be followed up in more detail as and when required. This is likely to affect our ability to accurately recall facts and figures such as those included in the survey. It does not reflect a lack of interest or understanding, but a switch in what we choose to retain ourselves versus ‘bookmarking’ for later reference.

“It also seems that advertisers seeking to tap into national pride are increasingly playing back to us images of how we would like to be: clean, green and enjoying the landscape. While the reality for many New Zealanders is different, our in-built instinct is to connect with the things we enjoy and care about and we apply mental shortcuts such as recency and stereotypes to our view of the world. Our rose-tinted perspectives on obesity and rural living may well be influenced in this way.

“New Zealand is not the worst in identifying realities about its country. Looking across the 33 countries included, many are even more wrong.

  • The proportion of household wealth that the top 1% own: Most developed countries greatly overestimate the proportion of household wealth the wealthiest 1% in their country own. Britain is the most inaccurate (estimating it to be 59%, over twice the real figure of 23%), but France, Australia, Belgium and Canada are all also more than 30 percentage points out of line. A few countries, though, underestimate how much of their country’s household wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1% – Israel, Brazil, India, Peru,, and Russia (where the top 1% actually own an incredible 70% of all wealth). There is a lot of variation between the countries on what they think the figure should be, though most of them believe it should be lower than it really is – with Russia again standing out as having the highest gap between the amount of wealth they think the top 1% should acceptably own (23%) and the true figure (70%).
  • Obesity: Almost every country Ipsos surveyed underestimates how much of a problem weight is in their country. The average guess for the proportion of overweight or obese people is 40%, which is much lower than the actual figure of 54%. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel are the most inaccurate, underestimating the prevalence of overweight and obese people by a massive 43, 33 and 33 percentage points respectively. The only countries that prove the exception are India, Japan, China and South Korea, all nations where the population is much less overweight than the other countries in the study.
  • The non-religious population:  Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea are fairly accurate about the (relatively high) proportions of non-religious people in their countries, but most other countries hugely overestimate the proportion that are non-religious: the average guess across the countries is 37% when the actual average proportion is 18%. This is particularly noticeable in India (average guess 33%, when the true figure is under 1%), in many Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Peru (who overestimate by 30, 27 and 25 points respectively), and countries as diverse as Russia (overestimation of 29 points), Norway, Serbia and Ireland (all out by 28 points).
  • Immigration: The average guess across 32 countries is that 23% of populations are immigrants when the actual figure is less than half that (10%). The biggest overestimations tend to be in countries with very low levels of immigration – such as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Peru and India, all of which overstate the proportion of immigrants by over 20 percentage points – but Canada and the USA, countries with higher levels of immigration, are also among the most inaccurate. Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Israel are the only countries that underestimate the proportion of immigrants.
  • Average age: Despite the huge range of countries covered in this study, almost everyone thinks their population is much older than it actually is. Across the study the average guess is 50 years old when the actual is 37 years. Most inaccurate were Brazil, Turkey, India and Hungary all of whom thought the average age is 20 years older than it really is.
  • Population aged under 14: At the same time, nearly every country also overestimates the number of under 14 year olds in their country. The average guess across all countries is 29%, compared with the actual figure of 20% (Israel is the one exception which underestimates the proportion of young people – but they are correct in appreciating they are a relatively young country.)
  • Female politicians: None of the countries in our study have achieved a gender balance in their lower house (or equivalent), although Sweden comes closest with female politicians making up 44% – in contrast only 10% are women in Brazil, Hungary and Japan. Some countries are reasonably accurate on these true figures – 13 guess within three percentage points – but there are still wide variations. Some countries that do relatively well on their gender balance don’t seem to realise this (such as Mexico, Spain and Belgium in addition to New Zealand), while Russia, Columbia, India and Brazil all think there is better female representation than there really is.
  • Female employment: The public mostly showed a high degree of accuracy across countries when they were asked how many women of working age were employed in their country – 10 countries get within three percentage points of the correct figure. There are, however, some outliers – Israel significantly underestimates the proportion of female employment (by 29 percentage points), while India, South Africa, Mexico and Chile all think there are more women in work than really are.
  • Rural living: Almost all countries in the study overestimate the proportion of their population who live in rural areas. This suggests the public underestimate just how densely populated cities are and conversely how sparse the rural population actually is. The average guess across all countries is 38% when it is actually 23%. Japan is most out of line on this question – by a massive 56% to a real 7%, while India and Serbia both actually underestimate how rural their populations are.
  • Internet access: There is a big divide between the developed and developing world on estimates of internet access. While most in richer countries slightly underestimate their (relatively high) levels of internet access, in the developing world respondents overestimate how many of their fellow citizens are online. The research was carried out with an online sample, so these findings may reflect how the middle-class/connected population generalise to the whole population from their own experience. For example in India the average guess among online respondents for internet access is 60% – an overestimation of the true picture of 41 percentage points, and in China the average guess is 72%, 26 points too optimistic.

The full Ipsos Index of Ignorance is provided in the table below. Mexico and India receive the dubious honour of being the most inaccurate in their perceptions on these issues, while South Koreans are the most accurate, followed by the Irish. There are some regional patterns in this table – for example Latin American countries tend to be more inaccurate, European and Americans more accurate – but this hides individual differences, and is not the whole story.

New Zealand is the least accurate of the developed countries (in the top five most ignorant), while China is in the top five most accurate.

  1. Mexico (Least accurate)
  2. India
  3. Brazil
  4. Peru
  5. New Zealand
  6. Colombia
  7. Belgium
  8. South Africa
  9. Argentina
  10. Italy
  11. Russia
  12. Chile
  13. Great Britain
  14. Israel
  15. Australia
  16. Japan
  17. Canada
  18. Germany
  19. Netherlands
  20. Spain
  21. Norway
  22. France
  23. Sweden
  24. United States
  25. China
  26. Poland
  27. Ireland
  28. South Korea (Most accurate)

Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute Managing Director Bobby Duffy said: “Across all 33 countries in the study, each population gets a lot wrong. We are often most incorrect on factors that are widely discussed in the media or highlighted as challenges facing societies, such as the proportion of young adults still living at home, immigration and wealth inequality. We know from previous studies that this is partly because we over-estimate what we worry about – as well as worrying about the issues we think are widespread.

“But we do also underestimate some key challenges such as obesity. In many countries, we’re maybe not as worried as we should be, given the extent to which our populations are overweight.

“We also get facts wrong that will make us focus on some issues more than they perhaps deserve: for example, we tend to think our populations are much older than they actually are, and that more people live in rural areas than is really the case.

“There are multiple reasons for these errors – from our struggle with simple maths and proportions, to media coverage of issues, to social psychology explanations of our mental shortcuts or biases. It is also clear from our ‘Index of Ignorance’ that the countries who tend to do worst have relatively low internet penetrations: given this is an online survey, this is therefore likely to reflect that this more middle-class and connected population generalise from their own experience rather than consider the much greater variety of circumstances in the full populations of their country.”

Technical notes: 

  • These are the findings of the Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception Survey. 25,556 interviews were conducted between conducted between October 1st – October 16th 2015.
  • The survey is conducted in 33 countries around the world via the Ipsos Online Panel system in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain, Turkey and the United States of America.
  • Approximately 1000+ individuals were surveyed in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Serbia, Spain, Great Britain Montenegro, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and the United States of America. Approximately 500+ individuals were surveyed in the remaining countries.
  • Where results do not sum to 100, this may be due to computer rounding, multiple responses or the exclusion of don’t knows or not stated responses.
  • Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.
  • The “actual” data for each question is taken from a variety of verified sources for each question and country – a full list of sources/links to the actual data can be found here.

About Ipsos
Ipsos is an independent market research company controlled and managed by research professionals. Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos has grown into a worldwide research group with a strong presence in all key markets. Ipsos ranks third in the global research industry. Ipsos has been listed on the Paris Stock Exchange since 1999 and generated global revenues of €1.712,4 million ($2 274 M) in 2013. With offices in 87 countries, Ipsos delivers insightful expertise across six research specialisations: advertising, customer loyalty, marketing, media, public affairs research, and survey management. Ipsos researchers assess market potential and interpret market trends. They develop and build brands. They help clients build long-term relationships with their customers. They test advertising and study audience responses to various media and they measure public opinion around the globe. Visit to learn more about Ipsos’ offerings and capabilities.

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