PolitiFact: How many transgender people are there in the US and why do we overestimate them?

State legislators have introduced hundreds of 2023 bills targeting transgender Americans and affecting access to healthcare, education and sports policies. To hear the political discourse, at times it seems that the transgender population of the United States is large, prosperous and influential.

“Trans ideology is coming for our children.” tweeted U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, Georgia, 11 July.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is misleading described being transgender as a “social contagion” and a mental illness that is spreading “like wildfire across this country”.

Twitter account Gays vs Groomers alerted its 343,000 followers on July 5 to a notable figure: “New data shows New Jersey has seen a spike in 4,000% of students who self-identify as non-binary.” Last year, this was reported in another tweet. what a follower said, “40% of her child’s friends identify as non-binary or transgender,” then highlighted 40%.

But is the US transgender population really on the rise? And what does the data tell us about how many transgender people there are in the US?

In fact, current data shows that the number of people who identify as transgender is very low, ranging from 0.5% to 1.6% of American adults, and slightly higher among young people. However, when asked, people overestimate the number of transgender people: one survey showed that the public believes that one in five people – or 21% of the population – is transgender.

Psychological quirks explain why people consistently overvalue minorities, but research shows that this exaggerated perception can lead to more prejudiced beliefs and may shed light on the emergence of anti-transgender legislation.

So PolitiFact explored: what are the real numbers, why do we get them wrong, and why does it matter?

The data show that the number of transgender people is very low, and slightly higher among young people.

Determining the number of transgender people in the US is not easy. Prior to 2021, the US Census Bureau did not ask about sexual orientation and gender identity, so we do not have large-scale demographic data. Instead, researchers rely on survey data to estimate the size of the transgender population.

In June 2022, the Williams Institute, a public policy research institute at UCLA School of Law, released its data. Williams relied on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and estimated that 1.6 million people, or 0.6% of Americans aged 13 and over, identify as transgender. Among adults, the percentage was lower – about 0.5%. And among young people from 13 to 17 years old, it was 1.4%.

Gallup, a public opinion research company, found similar numbers in its 2022 survey of 10,000 American adults. Overall, about 0.6% identified themselves as transgender, with more among young people: 1.9% between the ages of 18 and 25.

The highest rates were recorded by the Pew Research Center, which found that 1.6% of 10,188 American adults surveyed self-identified as transgender or non-binary, meaning they do not identify as either male or female. The rate was again higher among young people, with 2% of people aged 18 to 29 identifying as transgender men or women, and 3% identifying as non-binary.

The experts shared that the discrepancies between the results could be due to some quirks and challenges in collecting data on gender identity.

For example, the Williams Institute and Gallup asked whether people consider themselves transgender. For some people, “transgender” can include anyone whose gender assigned at birth does not match their gender identity. But other non-binary people may or may not consider themselves transgender, and may answer such a question in the negative.

The current gold standard is a two-stage approach that includes one question about gender assigned at birth and another question about current gender identity, explained Andrew Flores, assistant professor of public administration at American University and co-author of the Williams Institute report. This method, used by Pew in its 2022 study, covers a wider range of diverse gender identities. The broader question may explain the greater number of Pews found.

But existing survey data using this two-stage approach is limited, Flores said.

Conducting surveys on the topic of gender identity requires special consideration, experts say. For example, are people asked privately or publicly in front of family? Are the questions themselves understandable to people who are less familiar with LGBTQ+ issues? Who is sponsoring the poll?

People overestimate the number of transgender people, psychology plays a role

However you slice it, the numbers are low. But ask people how many transgender people they think are in the US, and the numbers are absolutely incredible.

In 2022, YouGov, based in the United Kingdom, asked 1,000 Americans to estimate the size of various minority groups. “If you had to guess what percentage of American adults are transgender?” one of the questions asked.

The median response was 21%, or 1 in 5 Americans. This overestimation was not exceptional, as respondents consistently overestimated the size of other minority groups, assuming that 27% of people are Muslim (actually 1%), or that 41% of Americans are black (actually 12% to 13%).

A survey of 1,500 voters commissioned by Newsweek gave respondents fewer options: less than 1%, 1-3%, 3-5%, or more than 5%. The results showed that 61% of people believe that more than 1% of people are transgender, and 39% of people believe that this proportion is more than 3%.

These findings are consistent with research that shows that people consistently overestimate the size of minority groups. Experts say there are two big explanations for this error.

“People tend to be very bad at any kind of numerical assessment,” says Maureen Craig, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. This “incalculability,” as it is sometimes called, means that we tend to overestimate small numbers and underestimate large ones. This pattern can be seen in the YouGov survey of all 43 questions asked.

Because minorities are, by definition, small, we constantly overestimate. And the lower the number, the worse we guess, Craig said.

Another reason we overestimate is because “our minds are wired to notice anything unusual or infrequent,” says Rasha Kardosh, a research fellow in psychology at New York University. “People from a minority group are, by definition, rarer, so our minds tend to pick up on their presence” and remember seeing them.

You may remember every person you have seen in a wheelchair. But “you generally don’t think about all the people who don’t use a wheelchair,” said Baruch Fischhoff, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “So people know exactly what they’ve seen, but they tend to overestimate things because they don’t account for all the cases that we haven’t seen.”

Misjudged estimates are the result of a combination of inaccuracies in calculus and our brain’s tendency to remember what and who we think is new. Craig says it’s “the perfect storm” for transgender people. “It’s really a tiny part of the population and it’s on the news.”

This means that the public will likely think a lot more about transgender people, a group that they have probably already overestimated.

These inflated estimates may just be psychological accidents. For example, in a YouGov poll, poll designer and data journalist Taylor Orth stated in an email to PolitiFact that Democrats and Republicans are “about the same likelihood of overestimating and underestimating the size of different groups. This indicates that misperceptions are not necessarily driven by political identity and are likely a broader phenomenon rooted in human psychology.”

But other research suggests that our miscalculations and perceptions of group size can shape our political views.

How inflated estimates can affect political views

Several studies have found a correlation between the perceived size of a minority group and negative and hostile attitudes towards that group. This can lead to the individual feeling threatened by a minority that is much smaller than intended. “Evidence shows that people use group size as a measure of how strong that group is,” Craig said.

Some experiments have shown that information about the growth of racial minority groups causes more negative attitudes towards racial minorities.

Experiments conducted by Craig and her colleagues also showed that reminding people of the rise of minorities can lead some members of the majority population to express more conservative political views.

Another experiment by Kardos found that when participants overestimated the prevalence of black students at a fictional university, they were less likely to support policies that encouraged diversity. But when participants were told that the actual prevalence of black students was 5%, people were more supportive of such a policy.

Most of this research focuses on racial demographic shifts, but we can see a similar trend with the LGBTQ+ population. While more Americans are reporting that they personally know someone who is transgender and uses gender-neutral pronouns, there is also a growing belief that gender is determined by gender assigned at birth, according to polls conducted by Pew.

The Washington Post-KFF poll also found that a majority of Americans support policies that limit transgender youth’s access to school sports and gender-affirming health care.

A year or two ago, most people may have given little thought to the topic of transgender rights. But Craig said that by drawing attention to this group, high-profile political discussions and news coverage can fuel people’s overreception and sense of urgency on transgender issues.

“It’s not just about people making these assessments and then reacting,” Craig said. “It’s also a proposed policy that makes people think of it as a problem.”

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