KU study finds Americans, regardless of political beliefs, are really bad at estimating gay population

Participants carry a rainbow flag during a parade along Ocean Drive at Miami Beach Gay Pride, Sunday, April 10, 2016, in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Americans might still have divided opinions when it comes to LGBTQ rights. But when it comes down to accurately guessing how many U.S. citizens are gay or lesbian, most of us are in the same boat. Essentially, we don’t have a clue.

A new study from political science researchers at the University of Kansas explores the phenomenon of overestimating minority populations, and why those who provide higher estimates are ultimately less likely to support equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens.

It’s not necessarily coming from a place of feeling threatened by the minority group, said KU professor and study co-author Don Haider-Markel.

“The pattern that we’d expect to find would be pretty consistent with the idea that those who are part of the group or are politically affiliated with that group would be more likely to overestimate the size of the population,” Haider-Markel said. ” … But both (groups) would engage in motivated reasoning, this wishful thinking idea that it benefits me to see this group as either larger or smaller.”

Don Haider-Markel

Haider-Markel co-authored the study, recently published in the Journal of Homosexuality, with fellow KU political science professor Mark Joslyn. Haider-Markel, who also chairs his department, said he and Joslyn wanted to expand on previous research that focused on local or regional data.

Instead, their study examined two national surveys, one conducted by Gallup in 1977 and another conducted in 2013 by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and education organization. Both provided nationally representative samples of the U.S. population, Haider-Markel said.

“It was sort of an interesting idea,” he said. “Did people estimate the gay and lesbian population differently in 1977 than they did in 2013? And are the implications of that any different?”

Previous research, he said, ignored those questions. But Haider-Markel said his research proves that estimates matter when it comes to support of policies that protect the rights of gay and lesbian citizens.

Despite shifts in the country’s social and political landscape over the last 40 years, surveys from 1977 and 2013 suggest Americans are still pretty off-base when it comes to estimating gay and lesbian populations.

In 2013, the average survey participant’s response was 23 percent, compared with the range of 10 to 19 percent in 1977. (The earlier study only provided percent ranges for participants to check off, while the more recent study allowed participants to give specific numbers.)

Mark Joslyn

A 2014 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, out of the approximately 34,500 polled, about 3.5 percent of American adults identify as gay or lesbian. The number is roughly in line with earlier estimates, but debunks the commonly cited 10-percent estimate first claimed by sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey in 1948.

Haider-Markel’s study found that members of groups, such as Republicans or religious Americans, that could be perceived as feeling “threatened” by minority groups are no more likely to overestimate the gay population than others. But those in the majority group that did indicate a “threat perspective” of gay and lesbian Americans were less likely to support employment protections and legal same-sex marriage.

Providing accurate information on population sizes, Haider-Markel said, probably won’t improve average Americans’ estimates of the gay population. The U.S. Census already provides reliable data, he said, on the proportion of the population that is Hispanic or African-American, for example, “but people are still really bad at estimating” those figures, too.

“People’s perceptions of population size clearly play a role in their political thinking,” Haider-Markel said. “And their perceptions are influenced by their political leanings, but we don’t really understand a whole lot about this.”

He and Joslyn are working to expand their research to other minority groups that “haven’t been explored so much,” he said, as well as the implications behind how people expect minority groups to grow or decline in the future.

One recent example: the protests and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Va. Haider-Markel theorizes that the incident may have altered perceptions about the size and growth (or lack thereof, potentially) of white nationalist movements, which, in turn, “shapes our perception of what we think the environment is like for us.”

“Their perceptions are being skewed by one event, but subsequently, their behavior may change a lot by that,” he said. “When the reality is, the population of these groups may have stayed entirely stable.”