Saturday, August 4, 2012

Where Is The Bias?

What percentage of the United States population is homosexual?

What would you guess?

Most people I ask this question of tend to give me a number like 15%, 17%, 20% or 25%.

A Gallup poll last year found that U.S. adults, on average, estimated that 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian.

How many adults are gay in America?

There does not seem to be any definitive number.  However, it is a long, long, long way from 25%.

This source on a range of U.S. demographic groups, which cites a number of studies, puts the percentage at 1.51%.

This story in The Atlantic says that the percentage is less than 2 percent.

This report by ABC News, citing a think-tank devoted to LBGT research at UCLA, puts the number at 4%.  However, to get this higher number you have to include bisexuals.

I could not find any reliable source that put the number at higher than 5%.

How can people be so far off in their guess?

I think it derives from the heavy influence of Hollywood and the news.  Consider the number of movies and television shows that have gay characters and the disproportionate number of news stories that focus on gay rights, gay marriage or other gay issues.  It is truly a situation where the loudest single person in a room of 50 gets all the attention.  You never even get to hear from the other 49.

It also derives from the inability of most people to use the analytical portion of their brain.  I call it the reflective side of the brain.  On this and many other issues the reflexive side of the brain simply overwhelms logic.  For example, if you really stop and think, do you really think that 1 in every 4 or 5 people you see in a day are gay?  The people you work with?  Your family members?  Your friends? Walk down the street.  1 in every 5?  No way.

People reach the conclusion they do because of what is called "availability" bias.  In simple terms, we estimate frequencies or numbers based on the ease with which instances come to mind.  If retrieval from the brain is easy and straightforward we tend to judge the numbers in the category to be large.  People see and hear a lot of stories about gays and gay rights, therefore, when asked to guess a percentage it is high.

It is interesting that the same demographic survey referenced above that found that only 1.51% of American adults are gay also found that 44% of Americans identified themselves as "born again"or "evangelical".

Let's put this in perspective.  The number of gays in this country is 4.3 million.  The number who consider themselves evangelical or born again is 125.3 million.

Why don't we hear more news stories about these deeply religious people when they outnumber gays by almost 30 to 1?  Where are the tv shows and movies about these people?

These numbers should also provide a little insight as to why over a million showed up at Chick-fil-A's across the country on Wednesday to show their appreciation for both the freedom of religion and speech in this country but apparently only handfuls showed up for the gay and lesbian kiss-in on Friday.  The Chick-fil-A closest to my house was swamped on Wednesday for the appreciation day but they reported they had not had one protestor at the store as of late Friday afternoon.

Most of the major media outlets barely mentioned the Chick-fil-A story on Wednesday.  However, according to, two major news networks were covering one protestor at a Chick-fil-A store on Friday.  Is this fair and balanced journalism?  Any question on where availability bias comes from?  The next poll might get the gay community to 50%.  Where is the real bias in this country?

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