Seeing Members of Minority Groups Everywhere? It's an Identified Cognitive Illusion

According to Israeli researchers, who conducted experiments in the U.S. and Israel, people tend to overestimate the presence of minorities around them – regardless of political views

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Two street performers dressed as the Spider-Man and Mickey Mouse walk across Hollywood Boulevard.
Two street performers dressed as the Spider-Man and Mickey Mouse walk across Hollywood Boulevard.Credit: Jae C. Hong /AP
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

In today's political reality, many people are opposed to letting immigrants into their countries. In most cases, the claim raised to justify this position is that these immigrants have a major impact on the character of the country. But how many refugees actuality came to Europe from Syria? How many migrants have crossed the Mexico–U.S. border? A new study suggests that the actual number of migrants and refugees is much smaller than most people think intuitively – and that most people are incorrect about the real number, regardless of political affinity or ethnicity.

The cause is a newly identified cognitive illusion called an “illusion of diversity.” It is described in research headed by Dr. Rasha Kardosh and Prof. Ran Hassin of the Hebrew University's Psychology Department, and the Federmann Center for Rationality, whose findings were published on Tuesday in PNAS, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the series of experiments, hundreds of participants in the U.S. were asked what proportion of the pictures was of Black people. The participants tended to disproportionately overestimate the number of Black people pictured. In one of the experiments, for example, 25 percent of the pictures shown were of Black people, but the average estimate by participants was almost double – 43 percent. Although the environment to which they were exposed was three-quarters white, participants saw an almost equal division.

People walk on the Mouffetard street in Paris, France. Credit: CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/ REUTERS

The study also conducted experiments in Israel. Arab and Jewish students were asked to estimate the percentage of Arab students on their campus at the Hebrew University. The Jews estimated that 31 percent were Arab, while the Arabs estimated their own number at 35 percent. In fact, at the time of the study the real proportion was 12 percent.

The research also showed that the illusion is very widespread – 82 percent of participants depicted it, including those who themselves belong to the tested minority group.

Kardosh says she thinks the illusion is caused by the tendency of the cognitive system to put more attention on what a person does not expect to see. “People from the minority group are rare by definition. And so we are more likely to notice them and remember them,” she explains.

Hassin emphasizes the magnitude of the findings. “It’s rare to find a phenomenon among 82 percent of participants,” he says. “It’s the upper threshold of strong phenomena in psychology. The extent of the phenomenon is amazing to me.”

The series of experiments also tested whether one’s personal opinions would lead to different degrees of the magnitude of the illusion. “We thought that among leftists, the illusion with regard to Arabs would be less strong than among right-wing participants, and that among Arabs the magnitude with regard to other Arabs would be less in comparison to others,” Hassin says. “But that doesn’t appear to be the case. According to the data we have, there is no connection between opinions and ethnicity and the magnitude of the illusion.”

Beach goers on a packed beach in Tel Aviv. Credit: Moti Milrod

Hassin says that both he and Kardosh had the illusion. “In recent years there are more Arab students at the university, for all kinds of reasons. Rasha and I had the impression that they make up a large part of the student population. When we began the research it was clear to us that we think that there are more Arab students in the corridors than there actually are, because we knew the real number.”

According to the researchers, the illusion of diversity has broad societal implications. To test them, they checked the opinions of participants on policies favoring diversity promoting policies. It was found that the greater the extent of the participant’s illusion, the less they supported policies that encouraged equality, redress of injustices and increasing diversity. That’s logical, Kardosh says: “If you think that 30 percent of the students on campus are Arab, which is greater than their number in the population, this will probably influence the way you think about encouraging diversity in university registration."

The researchers say it is important to make data on diversity accessible and public as a means of limiting this illusion, in the hopes that it will help avoid at least some of its negative implications. “A full solution will only be in a major systemic change,” says Kardosh. “But making the figures public, as a beginning, is a good idea. In the United States, for example, the number of Black people on campuses is made public in many cases. It’s also important for decision makers, who know the figures, to know that public opinion is not based on numbers, but rather on the illusion of diversity, and is therefore biased.”

“How do we bring the exact data to the public? ” Hassin asks. “That’s a good question. But you can’t leave assessments up to people’s intuition. The illusion of diversity is very strong and it’s important to deal with it."

Shoppers walk down Oxford Street in London, in 2021.Credit: Frank Augstein /AP

Regarding common perceptions of numbers of migrants in various countries, according to Kardosh, studies show that the number of Muslims is greatly overestimated in all European countries where Muslims live. “In France, for example, Muslims are seven percent of the population, but people estimate their number at 30 percent," she says. :It must be understood that public opinion is influenced by the illusion of social diversity.”

So far, the researchers have looked at the illusion in the context of the presence of a particular ethnic group, but Hassin says he “bets with a high degree of certainty” that the illusion is present in many other ways, too. “You don’t walk down the street and wonder ‘how many Arabs did I see?’" he says. "The cognitive system collects memories and impressions and creates knowledge that sits in your head. The tendency to overestimate phenomena that exist, but in lower frequencies, is apparently not unique to ethnic distinctions. I presume that this is a widespread phenomenon that exists in other areas.”

And so the researchers are now trying to examine the illusion of diversity on other areas, such as opinions. “On social media, people are exposed to extreme positions," Hassin says. "In fact, few people hold such positions, but people apparently believe there are a lot, because of the illusion of diversity.”

A similar process may occur with regard to gender, Kardosh says. “If we consider, for example, how many women study in the Computer Sciences department, it’s likely we’ll estimate a larger number of female students than their real number.” Even people to whom ethnic and gender diversity is important fall victim to the illusion, Kardosh says. “Therefore, it’s important to know the right numbers, and to be aware of the existence of the illusion,” she cautions. Nevertheless, Kardosh adds, “of course this is not a solution to everything. Sometimes people can oppose diversity and equality even when they know the real numbers."

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