There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today. Which map shows best where they live?

Each figure represents 1 billion people

• A. 1-1-1-4 (4 billion in Asia)
• B. 1-1-2-3 (2 billion in Africa)
• C. 2-1-1-3 (2 billion in the Americas)

According to the UN’s Population Prospects data, the world’s population is divided up like this: 1 billion people in the Americas, 1 billion in Europe, 1 billion in Africa, and 4 billion in Asia. You can find the full dataset (compiled by Gapminder) here.

Why the Wrong Answers are VERY Wrong

B) 1-1-2-3 (2 billion in Africa)

Most people in the richest countries have been bombarded with images of overcrowded African cities. But the truth is, Africa ISN’T overcrowded. The entire African continent—which accounts for more than 20% of the world’s land area—contains just 1 billion people, or slightly more than 13% of the world’s population.

C) 2-1-1-3 (2 billion in the Americas)

Despite how much we all hear about the US, most people don’t live there. In fact, the US only accounts for a little under 4.3% of the world’s population. Even when you add the populations of South America and Canada—bringing the total to around 1 billion people—the Americas still only account for just over 13% of the world’s population.

The ignorance we found

Only 28% of our respondents picked the correct map.

And there’s nothing to celebrate in the country-specific results, either. Australia were the top performers (if you can call it that) with 34% correct answers, while Belgium brought up the rear with just 21%.

So if not the correct answer, what did people choose? Well, it turns out that half of our respondents thought there were 2 billion people in Africa, while almost a quarter thought there were 2 billion in the Americas.

Needless to say, all of them were VERY wrong.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

Humans have what we like to call the “size instinct”, which causes us to overestimate the size and importance of things we can see. On the flip side, it causes us to underestimate the size and importance of things we can’t see.

So how do most of us find out about what’s happening in the world? Through the media. And what parts of the world are typically covered by the media? Well, a great deal of coverage is centered on:

1. The Americas (mainly because they dominate popular culture and politics); and,
2. Africa (mainly through media imagery of people living in overcrowded cities and abject poverty)

As a result, most people have an unrealistic view of the importance (and population) of those parts of the world.

On the other hand—and for a whole variety of reasons—the media in the countries we surveyed rarely covers countries in Asia. The result? People assume it’s smaller and less important than it really is.

The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?

• A. There will be more children (age below 15)
• B. There will be more adults (age 15 to 74)
• C. There will be more very old people (age 75 and older)

According to the UN Population Prospects dataset, by 2100 the world’s population will have risen by a little over 3.6 billion compared to 2017. The adult population of the world will have risen by 2.5 billion—that’s 68.5% of the anticipated population growth.

Despite all the media attention on the “ageing population”, very old people will account for less than ⅓ (31%) of the projected population increase. And the UN estimates that children under the age of 15 will account for less than 0.5% of population increase by 2100—an increase of just 17.5 million children.

You can view the full dataset (compiled by Gapminder) here.

The ignorance we found

Yet again our respondents failed to beat the chimps! A terrible 26% of our respondents chose the right answer.

This time it was our US respondents who scored highest, with 36% correct answers, while Japan brought up the rear with just 10% selecting the right answer.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

In many ways, the ignorance around this question isn’t very surprising. In nearly every rich country, the “ageing population” problem has received a huge amount of attention from the media, politicians, and educators.

Unfortunately, most of this attention hasn’t done a good job of explaining how ageing populations actually work. This leads many people to assume the average age of the world’s population will just keep going up in a straight line… which of course it won’t.

Right now, many countries do indeed have ageing populations, which are caused primarily by three things:

1. Increased life expectancy
2. Fewer babies being born per woman
3. The well-publicized “baby boom” of the mid-twentieth century

Yes, you read that last item correctly. Because so many people were born during a relatively short period of time—with fertility rates dropping off afterwards—that means there will also be a time where there is a particularly large cohort of old people. It’s the same group of people, just grown up. But fast-forward a generation or so, and—assuming birth rates remain fairly stable—a lot of this problem will be smoothed out.

But none of this gets a lot of attention in the media, so most people just aren’t aware of it. Add this to the misconception about birth rates causing rising populations, and you’re left with a lot of people who have very little idea how their world will evolve over the next eight decades.

There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations?

• A. 4 billion
• B. 3 billion
• C. 2 billion

According to the UN’s Population Prospects dataset, the number of children in the year 2100 will be roughly the same as it is today: just under 2 billion.

The ignorance we found

The results for this question were terrible; just 15% our respondents answered correctly! More than twice as many would have got the question right if they had chosen randomly without even reading the question.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

Pretty much everybody knows the world’s population is increasing, but the reasons why population numbers are increasing is widely misunderstood.

Any suggestion that the number of children will rise over the next 100 years demonstrates a lack of understanding of the factors that cause population growth. So here’s a quick lesson:

Women are NOT having more children than they did in the past. Quite the opposite, in fact—women in most countries are having fewer children than they did 50 years ago. Population growth isn’t caused by more babies being born… it’s caused by more babies surviving to adulthood. More specifically, it’s caused by more babies surviving to adulthood in the poorest countries, where previously they didn’t.

And by the way, it’s not a prediction that the number of children being born each year will stop increasing—it has already happened. We’ve consistently seen a drop in the number of children born per woman globally since the mid-1950s, and it’s not a trend that’s going to stop anytime soon.

If you’d like to learn more about the factors that cause population growth, you can watch Hans’ TED talk on the subject here.

Where does the majority of the world population live?

• A. Low-income countries
• B. Middle-income countries
• C. High-income countries

74% of the world’s population lives in middle-income countries. And despite what many people think, far more people live in high-income countries (17%) than in low-income countries (10%).

That means there are more people with access to good education, safe housing, and nutritious food than there are living in extreme poverty.

Data source: World Bank

The ignorance we found

On average, 26% of respondents chose the right answer to this question, and only two countries scored better than the chimps (33%)!

A massive 72% of respondents thought most people live in low-income countries where  just 10% of the world population live.  So while 26% overall might not seem all that bad, in reality, it shows that almost ¾ of our respondents have a huge misconception about the world they live in.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

There’s a general misconception that the world is divided into the “haves” and the “have nots”. But this just isn’t true! If you assume the world is divided into “rich” and “poor”, you end up overlooking around three-quarters of the world’s population.

The reality of today is that most people have their basic needs met. They have enough to eat, clean drinking water, at least basic medical care, and access to electricity and transportation. However, because this silent majority don’t show up in our news or social media feeds, it’s easy to become overly focused on the extremes.