Population Research and Policy Review 17: 389–402, 1998.
1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Does demographic knowledge matter?
Results of a poll in the New York City Watershed
J. MAYONE STYCOS & MAX J. PFEFFER
Department of Rural Sociology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Abstract. A 1993 telephone survey of 1,150 households in 15 upstate towns in the New York
City watershed asked a number of knowledge and attitude questions related to perceptions
of national, local, and world population size. Considerable public ignorance of population
size was revealed, with gender differences the most critical explanatory variable. Males were
much more likely to respond to knowledge questions on population size, and to respond more
accurately, even after several other characteristics were held constant. However, knowledge is
at best unrelated to measures of concern about population, and even shows a slight tendency
to be associated with lower concern.
Key words: Attitudes, Gender, Knowledge, Population, Survey
In the quest for determinants of fertility behavior, ‘Knowledge’ has been a
major component of fertility surveys and causal models of fertility. However,
knowledge has almost exclusively been deﬁned as contraceptive knowledge,
on the assumption that such information was a prerequisite to fertility con-
trol behavior (Stycos 1984). Although population education specialists have
long argued for the relevance of demographic sophistication (awareness of
world, national or local population characteristics and trends) ‘historically,
few surveys have sampled demographic knowledge’ (Crews 1994: 2).
These few surveys have shown most publics to be more knowledgeable
about contraception than about population. For example, asked how many
people there are in the USA, most Americans confess they do not know. This
was ﬁrst noted in 1965, when two-thirds of a national sample were unable
to make an initial response. Even after a probe (‘Can you make a rough
guess?’) one-ﬁfth could not respond, and only one-third of the total sample
came within 25 million of the correct answer. Six years later, after much
census generated fanfare about the nation’s achieving a population of 200
million, 43% of a national poll still said they did not know the size of the US
population. After being encouraged to guess, most of the respondents did so,