British people hugely overestimate the number of Muslims in the UK, says new survey

Britons think country is more conservative, more miserable and more Muslim than it actually is

Benjamin Kentish
Thursday 15 December 2016 11:46 GMT
British people were better informed about their country than the populations of 38 other nations
British people were better informed about their country than the populations of 38 other nations

British people have a heavily skewed perspective on the reality of life in the UK, a new survey suggests – but are still more accurate in their evaluations than the populations of most countries.

The poll reveals Britons hugely overestimate the number of Muslims in the UK, think people are unhappier than they really are and believe homophobia is more widespread than it is.

IPSOS Mori’s ‘Perils of Perception’ survey found people’s answers were closer to the mark when they were asked about inequality in the UK and the size of the country’s population.

Despite the perception gap, the international study found British people were more accurate in their assessment of their country than people in 38 of the other 40 nations polled. Only the population of the Netherlands was more informed about national life. Citizens of South Korea, the Czech Republic and Malaysia were also particularly knowledgable.

In contrast, citizens of India and China were the least accurate in their guesses, while the US population was the fifth worst informed.

British people were especially far from the mark when asked what proportion of the UK population is Muslim. The real answer is just one in twenty – but Britons believe it to be almost one in six. That would mean there were almost 10 million Muslims in the UK when in reality there are 2.8 million.

Britons also think the UK’s Muslim population is growing much faster than it is. Those surveyed believed 22 per cent of the population will be Muslim by 2020 – suggesting they expect the number of Muslims in the UK to increase to 14 million in the next three years.

This was a common mistake across the world, with many countries significantly overestimating their Muslim population. French people think 31 per cent of their country is Muslim while Americans believe the figure for the US is 17 per cent. The real numbers are 7.5 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.

British people also think their fellow citizens are unhappier than they actually are. They believe only 47 per cent of Britons would say they are very or rather happy, when actually 92 per cent express that view.

People also guessed the UK spends 19 per cent of its GDP on health – the equivalent of £225 billion more than the real proportion of just 9 per cent.

On several social issues Britons believe their society is more conservative than polls suggest it actually is. People guessed that 28 per cent of the British public would say they found homosexuality “morally unacceptable” when really only 17 per cent do.

Similarly, those surveyed thought more than a third of British people would be opposed to abortion when in reality only a quarter are. And only 13 per cent say they think sex before marriage is unacceptable – lower than the 20 per cent the poll participants guessed.

Britons are much more accurate when asked about inequality. People guessed the least wealthy 70 per cent in Britain own just 19 per cent of the country’s wealth. The real figure is only slightly higher, at 21 per cent.

Like people in most other countries, Britons did not expect Donald Trump to win the US presidential election. 61 per cent believed Hillary Clinton would win while only 16 per cent predicted the Trump victory. Only three countries had a majority of people forecasting Mr Trump’s success: Russia, Serbia and China.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said: “Across all 40 countries in the study, each population gets a lot wrong. We are often most incorrect on factors that are widely discussed in the media, such as the proportion of our population that are Muslims and wealth inequality. We know from previous studies that this is partly because we over-estimate what we worry about.

"In many countries, particularly in the West, we have a picture of our population that is unduly miserable and intolerant. This is important: we know what people think of as the norm is important in affecting their own views and behaviours.

"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.

Ipsos MORI interviewed 27,250 people in 40 countries between 22nd September and 6th November 2016.

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