Americans Think the World Is Way Worse Than It Actually Is

Rage against the TVFor the most part, Americans form their political opinions without the slightest reference to reality. Our perceptions of the objective state of our country and world are wildly divorced from the facts. For example:

68% of Americans say the wealthy do not pay their fair share in taxes. Yet the top 1% of income earners in the United States pay nearly half of all income taxes. Essentially all income taxes are paid by the top 5% of income earners. Yet only 11% of Americans think the wealthy pay too much.

Only 12% of Americans think gun crimes have declined since the 1990s. 56% say such crimes have increased, while 26% say they’ve remained the same. In reality, half as many people die from gun crimes today as in the 1990s. This is part of an astonishing decline in violent crime overall since the 1970s.

According to Gallup, most Americans think at least 23 percent of the population is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. A third of Americans think every fourth person is LGBT. In reality, a generous estimate puts it at 3.8 percent of the population.

90% of Americans think global poverty is staying the same or getting worse. Only 6% of Americans think the world is, overall, becoming a better place. Yet deaths from violence and disease are at an all-time low, and just 10% of the world’s population are living in extreme poverty today, the lowest in recorded history. Almost all of this decline has occurred in the last fifty years.

Is it reasonable to expect Americans to vote rationally when their perceptions of reality are so skewed? On some of the most important policy issues, we are living in a fantasy world shaped by sensationalist media. Yet we’re expected to make informed decisions as a polity?

It’s a bleak picture, and contrary to many of my fellow conservatives, I don’t think it’s entirely due to malevolence on the part of mainstream media outlets. Some of it, of course, is politically-driven sensationalism. Journalists with an agenda often skew public perception not by reporting so-called “fake news,” but by selectively reporting real news. In many cases (especially when it comes to LGBT issues), progressive gatekeepers in the press over-represent favored constituents. Exposed to a lopsided sample of national and world events, the public will draw distorted conclusions. They will think about certain issues more than they should, and think about others less than they should. This strategy allows crooked reporters to maintain plausible deniability. But I don’t think it’s the main story.

Most of this unbalanced coverage and the resulting inaccuracy in Americans’ perceptions of the world seems to be the result of simple selection bias. Newsmen don’t get readers by reporting on planes that take off successfully or dogs that bite their owners. They get readers by reporting on planes that crash and owners who bite their dogs. It’s not a nefarious plot so much as a natural human tendency. The Internet age has only aggravated the problem by introducing a universe of clickbait and mindless algorithms that select and prioritize stories based on popularity, not reliability.

In short, we’re being lied to about the world we live in, but the number of actual liars is probably small. Rather, the way we consume news is weeding out positive, encouraging, or relieving headlines in favor of negative, discouraging, and outrageous ones. A culture of anger on both the political left and right fuels this cycle. And augmented by the rage-centric business model of Facebook and Twitter, torqued-off readers propel the stories that gall them to mega-viral status, while leaving BoredPanda to distribute the good feelings.

We’re responsible to fight this tendency, whether we’re on the writer’s or reader’s end of the news. An accurate understanding of the world is essential to all sound decision-making, and the evidence indicates that Americans, now more than ever, lack such an understanding.