Global study explores how wrong people are about the causes of death in their country

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Ipsos’ latest Perils of Perception study highlights public misperceptions across 32 countries about the proportion of people who die from diseases, violence, transport injuries, and other causes.

These are the latest findings from Ipsos’ Perils of Perception survey. The survey was conducted in 32 countries and asked people what they think are the main causes of death in their country.

Global study explores how wrong people are about the causes of death in their country - Brand Spur

While patterns differ in different countries, overall on average people tend to underestimate how many deaths are caused by cancers and cardiovascular disease, and overestimate how many are caused by transport injuries, substance misuse and violence.

Causes of death around the world

Diseases and infections

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally according to the IHME Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 (IHME). The second biggest cause are cancers.

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The majority of countries in the study underestimate the percentage of people who die from cardiovascular diseases each year. The average guess across all countries was 11% when the actual figure was almost three times that at 32%. In Romania, 56% of all deaths are due to cardiovascular disease and the average guess was just 12%.

Most countries underestimate the proportion of people who die from cancer each year. On average people think 15% of deaths each year are a result of cancer when the actual figure is 24%. In France, people think cancer accounts for 16% of deaths each year when in reality it is double that at 32%.

Deaths resulting from neurological disorders such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease are also underestimated in many countries. The average guess across all 32 countries is 5% when the actual figure is 9%. People are particularly likely to underestimate this in Japan with an average guess of 5% compared with the actual figure of 16%.

Nearly every country overestimates the proportion of deaths resulting from HIV/AIDS or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The average guess is 5% when in reality the figure is 1%. In South Africa, HIV/AIDs and STIs cause 29% of deaths each year. But the average guess is 11%.

Conflict, terrorism, and violence

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Every country overestimates the proportion of people who die through interpersonal violence each year. The average ‘actual’ figure across all countries is just 1% when the average guess is 8%. People in the Americas are particularly likely to overestimate the proportion of people dying from interpersonal violence. In Peru the average guess is 14% when the actual figures are just 0.8%.

Nearly every country in the study overestimate the proportion of people who die from terrorism or conflict each year. The average across all countries is just 0.1% when the average guess is 5%. In Colombia and Turkey people are particularly likely to overestimate this with guesses of around 10% when the actual figures are all less than 1%.

Substance use disorders

The proportion of deaths resulting from drug or alcohol addiction is overestimated in all countries. On average people think this accounts for 8% of all deaths when in reality it is 0.7%. In Italy, the average guess is 10% when the actual percentage of deaths is 0.5%.

Suicide

In every country, people overestimate the number of people who die by suicide. The average proportion of deaths by suicide for countries included in the study is 1.6% compared with an average guess of 7.3%. In Japan, the average guess is 10.9% when in reality the figure is 2.1%.

Transport injuries

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Transport injuries are overestimated in almost every country. The average guess is 10% when the actual figure is much lower (2%). Spain, Poland, and Hungary are particularly like to overestimate this. In Spain, the average guess is 13% when transport injuries account for 0.7% of total deaths.

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Misperceptions Index

Looking across eleven questions where we get people to estimate factual realities, there are clear patterns in which countries have a more accurate view of their countries. To capture this, we’ve calculated the Ipsos “Misperceptions Index”, as shown in the table below.

For 2020, Turkey receive the unwelcome prize of ‘least accurate’ in their perceptions after coming 3rd in 2018. They are closely followed by Romania and Spain.

Brazilians are the most accurate, followed by South Korea and the Netherlands.

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32 Brazil Most accurate
31 South Korea  
30 Netherlands  
29 Colombia  
28 Sweden  
27 Canada  
26 Saudi Arabia  
24 Peru  
24 South Africa  
23 Belgium  
22 Chile  
21 India  
20 Argentina  
19 Russia  
18 France  
17 United States  
16 Mexico  
15 Germany  
14 Hungary  
13 Japan  
12 Philippines  
11 Australia  
10 United Kingdom  
8 Hong Kong, SAR, China  
8 Italy  
7 Malaysia  
6 Poland  
5 China  
4 Singapore  
3 Spain  
2 Romania  
1 Turkey Least accurate

As part of the study, participants were also asked questions about things that could influence their guesses including what they saw most in the news, what they felt had the least control over and what they thought would be the most unpleasant way to die.

  • People say they see transport injuries (38%), interpersonal violence (37%) and terrorism/conflict (35%) most frequently in the news.
  • On average, people are mot likely to have been personally affected by cancer (70%), cardiovascular diseases (60%) and diabetes or kidney diseases (58%).
  • When asked what would be the most unpleasant way to die, people are most likely to say cancer (40%), followed by an accident (27%), terrorism or transport injury (26%).
  • People think they have the least control over being a victim of a terrorist attack (32%), getting cancer (31%) or suffering a transport injury (30%).
  • Across all countries, on average, people think they’re most likely to get cancer (31%), a transport injury (25%) or cardiovascular disease (24%).

A spokesperson for Ipsos said:

Our latest Ipsos Perils of Perception study highlights many countries are very wrong when estimating the main causes of death in their country.

Across all 32 countries in the study people underestimate how many people die each year from the biggest killers such as cancers and cardiovascular diseases. But the public in many countries also overestimates the scale of other causes of death such as those resulting from murder, transport injuries, suicide or substance abuse.

We know there are lots of factors that can influence perceptions so this year we also explored issues such as what people see most in the news, what they have been personally affected by and what they felt they had the least control over. In some cases, we can see these appearing to have an influence – for example, in some countries seeing more stories about them in the news does seem to be related to higher guesses around issues like transport injuries and interpersonal violence, even while people may have a better idea of what is actually likely to happen to them. The picture at an individual level is more complex and highlights how challenging it is to reduce to a single factor the influences on our perceptions of the world around us.

Death might not be a topic many of us want to talk about, but our misperceptions around it have clear public health and policy implications – and a more sophisticated understanding of these perceptions will enable a better conversation with the public about it.

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Global study explores how wrong people are about the causes of death in their country - Brand SpurGlobal study explores how wrong people are about the causes of death in their country - Brand Spur

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Global study explores how wrong people are about the causes of death in their country - Brand SpurGlobal study explores how wrong people are about the causes of death in their country - Brand Spur

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