Misperceptions and Misrepresentations of Population Demographics

Whether race, gender, religion, ethnicity or nationality, any demographic is made up of a diversity of viewpoints, philosophies, experiences, positions, and perspectives. There is a range of views even within each major political party.

However, a small and sometimes extreme portion of the group is often misperceived or misrepresented as representing the majority or the whole of the group.

There is a variety of different reasons for this, from honest misconceptions to intentional misrepresentations.

Most of the misperceptions involve cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are innate mental shortcuts that translate into something understandable the complex and often ambiguous information in our lives. These are necessary for humans to function but involve errors. Examples of cognitive biases include stereotyping and confirmation biases.

It is common to stereotype and overgeneralize about a group from a small sampling. When I met my Madrid-native Spanish teacher with reddish hair and light eyes, I said that she didn’t look Spanish. She informed me that not all Spaniards have the stereotypical black hair and dark eyes.

A small and extreme element within a group is often misrepresented as representing the views and behaviors of the whole. For example, progressives make up only 11 percent of the Democratic Party, yet are often painted as representing the views of the entire party. This can be because the small group is assertive and presents itself as the “authentic voice” of the group. It is also because the Republicans portray the extreme with extreme positions as representing the views of the entire party. 

The media and entertainment greatly influence public and cultural perceptions, for various reasons misreporting, stereotyping or focusing on specific areas. Science journalist Karen L. Rudd writes, “Flattened discourse, unfortunately, is often an outcome of certain traditions in journalism. I don’t like ‘blaming the journalists’ but there are limits to the medium and over-simplification is one of them.”

Twitter and social media often paint a false portrait of a demographic, with most Twitter posts made by a small percentage of users. People often get into political and ideological echo chambers where they are exposed to only one point of view

The British research and data analysis YouGov showed that Americans tend to greatly overestimate the size of minority groups and underestimate the size of majority groups. Many of the estimates are amazingly off. 

The following are a few examples from the YouGov polling:

Jews make up 2 percent of the United States population, while those polled estimated it was 30 percent.

4 percent of Americans belong to a union, but those polled guessed it was 36 percent.

3 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian, but people estimated it was 30 percent.

These great misperceptions come from people both within and without the group. In fact, people outside the group often have a more accurate perception of the size than those within the group.

​​From millionaires to Muslims, small subgroups of the population seem much larger to many Americans | YouGov

Cognitive biases and misperceptions also contribute to other misperceptions and false beliefs. Conventional wisdom and widespread ideas about all sorts of subjects can be incorrect, including about science, medicine, and society. No one is an expert in all areas where they form opinions, ideas often don’t match the facts, and scientific findings can be counterintuitive. Social media, news, entertainment, and ideological bubbles contribute to this.  

A Pew research poll showed that the general public continues to debate ideas where most scientists agree, including about climate change, evolution, and vaccines.

Major Gaps Between the Public, Scientists on Key Issues | Pew Research Center

8 Myths About Public Understanding of Science | American Scientist

Beyond cognitive biases, many people are attached to their ideological beliefs, sticking with their biases on a topic even when presented with countering facts. We all do this at least at times.

Data scientist Imed Bourchika of the scientific portal research.com writes “When some people have already formed beliefs in their minds, these tend to stick and it goes for various topics. Even when faced with facts and logical reasoning, they would persistently push on with their beliefs. In fact, social media was weaponized due to this behavior, with a number of PR firms driving narratives that highlight propaganda rather than facts.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds and Beliefs are so Hard to Change? | Research.com


The Spiral of Silence

Compounding these misperceptions is a phenomenon called the spiral of silence.

Studied by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman, the spiral of silence is where people are afraid of social ostracization so don’t express views that they feel are in the minority, and sometimes even publicly say they agree with majority views that they don’t agree with.

Ostracization is a legitimate fear in all eras, including with today’s Twitter mobs and call-out and cancel culture. Illiberalism and censorship don’t always come in the form of edicts or rules from authority. They can come via groupthink and crowd following, peer pressure and going along to get along. Self-censorship is censorship.

This leads to general misperceptions of prevelant beliefs and often false consensus.

Spirals of silence: Expressing a minority political view on some campuses is difficult (thefire.org)

Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’ | Pew Research Center


These misperceptions are bad for public policy and social health

Government and private policies are often based on misperceptions, cognitive distortions, and sometimes flat-out wrong beliefs. Voters and individual policymakers can have misconceptions. This leads to policies that can be counterproductive to the purpose.

Policies about crime prevention that are driven by ideology over facts often are counterprove. Politically or ideologically driven views about diseases, such as Covid, lead to many preventable deaths. Public misperceptions about Genetically Modified Food (GMOs) and nuclear energy have led to counterproductive energy policies

When public opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them (brookings.edu)

Grand Illusions: The Impact of Misperceptions About Russia on U.S. Policy – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace



There are many keys to trying to overcome these issues These include understanding cognitive biases and understanding that we all have them. While cognitive biases are impossible to completely overcome, we must be aware of what they are and that we have them.

The public, especially in k-12 school, must be taught critical thinking and understanding of science.

We must allow the healthy and respectful exchange of a variety of views. This not only is a tool to expand knowledge and a collective search for truth. This is also to prevent misconceptions about what are prevailing beliefs.

Policies and social solutions must be driven by facts and data rather than strident ideology.

We must realize that and understand how demographics contain a wide diversity of views and experiences.