Hide your wife, hide your husband, hide your child! The immigrant hordes are here!

No wonder foreigners (and especially Muslims) have proved such an easy scapegoat for President Trump and his allies. Americans believe these groups have already taken over the country.

With a hat-tip to Deutsche Bank chief international economist Torsten Slok, here’s a chart showing the huge disparity between perceptions of the immigrant population and the reality of the immigrant population.


This chart comes from the 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Survey respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of the population in their country that was born abroad. The light blue bars reflects these guesses. The dark blue bars, on the other hand, reflect the actual percent of each country’s population that was born abroad, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Perhaps reflecting our nickname as a “nation of immigrants,” Americans mistakenly thought that 42 percent of people in this country had been born abroad. The actual share was less than a third that size, at 13 percent. That put us roughly in line with Great Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, though respondents in none of those other countries overestimated their immigrant population share as much as we did.

Every country for which data was available did overestimate their foreign-born population to some degree, however.

Those numbers are a few years old. The imagined scourge of scary not-like-me multitudes remains.

In 2015, the Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception survey asked a similar question and found similar results: Nearly everywhere, people overestimated the share of immigrants walking among them. U.S. citizens’ guesstimate for the immigrant share was lower in this survey, though, at “only” 33 percent.

Then this past fall, the same organization also polled people across 40 countries about their estimates of the Muslim population. The bars in the chart below show the difference between respondents’ guesses of the Muslim population share in their country and the actual population share that is Muslim.


Source: Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception Survey 2016. 27,250 interviews were conducted between Sep. 22 to Nov. 6, 2016. Question: “Out of every 100 people in [country], about how many do you think are Muslim?”
Nearly everywhere, people overstated the share of their population that was Muslim.

That includes the United States, where respondents said they thought about 17 percent of the country was Muslim, whereas only about 1 percent actually is. The fact that Americans thought a sixth of the country practices Islam is especially striking when you consider that about half of Americans say they do not personally know a single Muslim person.

In this survey, responses from the French were the most off the mark, at least in percentage-point terms (average guess of Muslim population share was 31 percent, versus actual population share of 7.5 percent).

Why are perceptions of immigrant and Muslim population share generally so much higher than the real numbers? One possibility is that some members of these groups might be highly visible or memorable, particularly if they dress and talk differently than others in the local population. Media coverage and political rhetoric may amplify these differences and make them more salient to the general public.

Especially if scapegoats are in high demand.