Open Access Open Access  Restricted Access Subscription or Fee Access

Tracking Ignorance: Examining Changes in Immigrant Population Innumeracy in the United States from 2005 to 2013

Daniel Herda


Citizens’ tendency to overestimate the size of immigrant populations has been the subject of several studies over the past three decades. While we have learned a great deal about the extent, causes, and potential consequences of this population innumeracy, our understanding remains static. The current letter offers the first longitudinal consideration of immigrant population size misperceptions with an analysis across a nine-year span in the U.S. This study considers: 1) whether misperceptions have changed over time; 2) how these changes compare to the growth of the actual foreign-born population size; and 3) whether these changes are related to demographic and ideological factors. Results indicate that misperceptions have grown rapidly in the U.S, far outpacing the modest, actual increases across the period. Pooled cross-sectional analyses indicate that demographic factors do not explain the growth in misperceptions. However, the overestimates of politically conservative Americans have grown increasingly extreme over time.


immigration; misperceptions; United States; longitudinal analysis; population innumeracy

Full Text:



Alba, R., Rumbaut, R.G., and Marotz, K. (2005). "A Distorted Nation: Perceptions of Racial/Ethnic Group Sizes and Attitudes Toward Immigrants and Other Minorities." Social Forces, 84 (2): 901–19.

Bersani, B.E. (2014). "A Game of Catch-Up? The Offending Experience of Second-Generation Immigrants." Crime and Delinquency, 60 (1): 60-84.

Blalock, H.M. Jr. (1967). Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations. New York: Wiley.

Blinder, S. (2015). "Imagined Immigration: The Impact of Different Meanings of 'Immigrants' in Public Opinion and Policy Debates in Britain." Political Studies, 63 (1): 80-100.

Blumer, H. (1958). "Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position." Pacific Sociological Review, 1 (1): 3–7.

Bobo, L. (1983). "Whites' Opposition to Busing: Symbolic Racism or Realistic Group Conflict?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45 (6): 1196–210.

Citrin, J. and Sides, J. (2008). "Immigration and the Imagined Community in Europe and the United States." Political Studies, 56 (1): 33-56.

The Economist. (2016). "Post-Truth Politics: The Art of the Lie." Retrieved February 28, 2017 (

Hagan, J., and Palloni, A. (1999). "Sociological Criminology and the Mythology of Hispanic Immigration and Crime." Social Problems, 46 (4): 617-632.

Herda, Daniel. 2010. "'How Many Immigrants?' Foreign Born Population Innumeracy in Europe." Public Opinion Quarterly. 74: 674-695.

Herda, Daniel. 2013a. "Innocuous Ignorance?: Perceptions of the American Jewish Population Size." Contemporary Jewry. 33: 241-245.

Herda, Daniel. 2013b. "Too Many Immigrants?: Examining Alternative Forms of Immigrant Population Innumeracy." Sociological Perspectives. 56: 213-240.

Herda, Daniel. 2015. "Beyond Innumeracy: Heuristic Decision-Making and Qualitative Misperceptions about Immigrants in Finland." Ethnic and Racial Studies. 38 (9) 1627-1645.

Herda, Daniel. 2018. "Comparing Ignorance: Misperceptions about Immigrants in the United States and Western 26 Europe". Societies Without Borders: Human Rights and the Social Sciences, 12 (2).

Hjerm, Mikael. 2007. "Do Numbers Really Count? Group Threat Theory Revisited." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 33 (8): 1253–75.

Howard, M.M., Gibson, J.L. and Stolle, D. (2006). "United States Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy (CIS) Survey 2006". Center for Democracy and Civil Society. Version 22.

Kunovich, R.M. (2016). "Perceptions of racial group size in a minority-majority area". Sociological Perspectives, 60 (3): 479-496.

Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. 2015. "Donald Trump's False Comments Connecting Mexican Immigrants and Crime." The Washington Post. Accessed 23 July 2018.

Nadeau, R., Niemi, R.G., and Levine, J. (1993). "Innumeracy about minority populations." The Public Opinion Quarterly, 57 (3): 332–47.

Norman, M. (2016). "Whoever wins the US presidential election, we've entered a post-truth worlds – there's no going back." Independent. Retrieved February 28, 2017 (

Pew Research Center. (2015). "Immigrants." Pew Research Center Data Trend. Accessed: 27 August 2015.

Quillian, L. (1995). "Prejudice as a Response to a Perceived Group Threat: Population Composition and Anti-Immigrant and Racial Prejudice in Europe." American Sociological Review, 60 (4): 586–611.

Quillian, L. (1996). "Group Threat and Regional Change in Attitudes Toward African-Americans." American Journal of Sociology, 102 (3): 816–60.

Savelkoul, M., Scheepers, P., Tolsma, J., and Hagendoorn, L. (2010). "Anti-Muslim Attitudes in the Netherlands: Tests of Contradictory Hypotheses Derived from Ethnic Competition Theory and Intergroup Contact Theory." European Sociological Review. 27 (6): 741-758.

Scheepers, P., Gijsberts, M., and Coenders, M. (2002). "Ethnic Exclusionism in European Countries. Public Opposition to Civil Rights for Legal Migrants as a Response to Perceived Ethnic Threat. European Sociological Review. 18 (1): 17-34.

Schneider, S.L. (2007). "Anti-Immigrant Attitudes in Europe: Outgroup Size and Perceived Ethnic Threat." European Sociological Review. 24 (1): 53-67.

Semyonov, M., Raijman, R. and Gorodzeisky, A. (2006). "The Rise of Anti-Foreigner Sentiment in Europe, 1988–2000." American Sociological Review, 71 (3):426–49.

Semyonov, M., Raijman, R., and Gorodzeisky, A. (2008). "Foreigners' Impact on European Societies: Public Views and Perceptions in a Cross-National Comparative Perspective." International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 49 (3): 5–29.

Semyonov, M., Raijman R., Tov, A.Y., and Schmidt, P. (2004). "Population Size, Perceived Threat and Exclusion: A Multiple-Indicators Analysis of Attitudes Toward Foreigners in Germany." Social Science Research, 33 (4): 681–701.

Sides, J. and Citrin, J. (2007). "European Opinion about Immigration: The Role of Identities, Interests and Information." British Journal of Political Science, 37 (3): 477–504.

Sigelman, L, and Niemi, R.G. (2001). "Innumeracy About Minority Populations: African Americans and Whites Compared." The Public Opinion Quarterly, 65 (1): 86–94.

Stelzenmueller, C., Eichenberg, R., Kennedy, C., and Isernia, P. Transatlantic Trends Survey, (2013). ICPSR34973-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2014-04-02.

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1973). "Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability." Cognitive Psychology, 5 (2): 207–32.

Wong, C.J. (2007). "'Little' and 'Big' Pictures in Our Heads: Race, Local Context, and Innumeracy about Racial Groups in the United States." Public Opinion Quarterly, 71 (3): 392-412.

Wunderlich, T., Ziebarth, A., Gustin, D., Isernia, P., Diehl, C., and Martin, S. Transatlantic Trends: Immigration, (2009). ICPSR31801-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2011-09- 01.


  • There are currently no refbacks.