Humanity has come a very long way from its mapping methods of yore: medieval globes that placed Jerusalem at the centre of our world, images of terrain carved into wooden blocks and copper plates during the Renaissance, and of course, blowing the lid off cartographic accuracy using aerial photography during World War I.
Now that any individual with a smartphone (over 2.5 billion people and counting) is walking around with an infinitely detailed world map in his or her pocket, one would assume that we've never been more familiar with world geography. Forget "Around the World in Eighty Days" – we can pull out our phones and digitally trot the globe in 80 seconds!
As it turns out, this ability may actually be hurting us instead of helping us. Relying on tools like GPS can actually diminish our sense of direction, like when a muscle atrophies from underuse. One study revealed that hikers who were asked to retrace their steps had much more success when they were given a paper map, as opposed to GPS-style, step-by-step instructions.
In an age of unparallelled access to maps and a striking reliance on technology, we wanted to explore how well people really know the world and its borders. In a survey of over 1,000 people, we asked Americans to point out European countries on a map and vice versa. Both groups were also asked to identify various other countries across the globe. Here's how they did.
Find That Country
Asking someone to locate a country on a map yields data that are so much more than "did they know where it was?" We also wanted to know where people pointed to when they misidentified a given location.
Venezuela, a country that was recognised by less than half of both surveyed populations, was at least able to keep errant guessers inside the continent's borders. Bolivia was the country most commonly confused for Venezuela, followed by Colombia, Peru, and Argentina. And while Brazil was accurately pointed out by nearly all of our respondents, some bold guessers placed this country inside of India, Algeria, and even Kazakhstan.
Nigeria – a country that was recognised by approximately half of Europeans and less than 40 percent of Americans – was frequently misidentified as a host of South American countries by Americans in particular (though the majority of inaccurate guesses still placed it within Africa).
Europeans vs. Americans: Who Found Them Better?
No matter where our respondents travelled on the map, Europeans were universally more apt at identifying world countries than Americans.
Out of all the locations we asked people to point out, China was the most frequently recognised of all. China also brought Americans closer than ever to winning this international battle of wits, with 84.6 percent correctly identifying this Asian location. However, Europeans beat them by a hair at 88.7 percent.
In other cases, the gap was much more pronounced. Just 28.2 percent of Americans were able to point to Syria on a map – the same country that is currently home to approximately 2,000 U.S. soldiers. In comparison, 43.7 percent of Europeans knew where Syria was.
Venezuela – a country currently teetering on the edge of civil war – was correctly identified by under half of both demographics' respondents. On the other hand, Brazil, India, and Japan were recognised by the grand majority of Europeans and Americans alike.
How Well Do You Know Your States?
In 2016, the U.S. welcomed 4.6 million British and 2 million German tourists – not to mention the millions of other European visitors from a host of other countries. With so many Europeans touching down on American soil, we wanted to know how well the population at large knew U.S. geography.
States that receive a high volume of tourists every year – think Florida and California – were pinpointed fairly accurately by our European respondents. More than 76 percent of Europeans identified the Sunshine State correctly, and nearly 80 percent were able to spot California.
States closer to the centre of the country, however, gave Europeans a run for their money: Locations like Colorado, Kentucky, and Wyoming yielded guesses from coast to coast, with less than 35 percent of respondents accurately identifying each one.
Although New York City has no shortage of European tourists walking its streets every year, only 29.6 percent were able to pinpoint the state on a map. Instead, it was guessed to be all along the Northeastern Seaboard, with a smattering of people placing it somewhere in the Midwest.
U.S. Geography, by the Numbers
If this survey taught us one thing, it's that the U.S. has a "Big Three" as far as well-known states go: California, Florida, and Texas.
These locations were by far the easiest for European respondents to point out on a map, no matter their age. While baby boomers correctly identified California and Florida at a higher frequency than Gen X and millennial respondents, the two younger generations were more apt than baby boomers at locating Texas.
After that, European baby boomers' ability to locate American states dropped off quickly: For the seven states that followed, they had the lowest rate of recognition among the three surveyed demographics. Meanwhile, millennials were only getting started. They accurately spotted New Mexico, Wyoming, Illinois, and Kentucky more frequently than their older counterparts.
Baby boomers also racked up the lowest percentage of accurately identified states overall, at 42.6 percent, compared to Gen Xers at 48.1 percent and millennials at 47 percent. Given that the two younger generations are more likely to travel internationally than baby boomers, that tendency may lead to a greater understanding of the globe's many unique locations.
How Well Do You Know Europe?
In 2016, a whopping 13.6 million Americans chose Europe as a vacation destination, helping define a record-breaking year in outbound U.S. travel. But did this taste for exploring European lands translate to a developed understanding of the continent's geography?
The U.K. and Spain were accurately identified by roughly 70 percent of Americans – more than any other country on the map. France nipped at their heels with a 68 percent recognition rate. On the other end of the spectrum, Croatia was the least recognised country at just 21.1 percent; It was oft confused for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Serbia instead.
Scandinavia proved to be another perplexing region for our American respondents. While 52.3 percent were able to properly locate Norway, another 14.5 percent pointed to Sweden erroneously. Ukraine gave them a similarly hard time: While almost 45 percent of Americans identified this country correctly, 15.2 percent pointed to neighbouring Belarus instead.
No matter how many respondents were able to recognise any given European country, there were always those who dropped their pin well outside the borders of the continent. For example, nine people confused Russia for Spain, 15 folks were convinced that Kazakhstan was Germany, and three lost souls confused Denmark for Uzbekistan.
Americans' Knowledge of Europe
While a few states stood out as far more recognisable to Europeans on the whole, American respondents' knowledge of European countries was more evenly spread out. Baby boomers were best at accurately pinpointing countries overall, with nearly 60 percent accuracy. Gen Xers were in second place at 55.5 percent, and millennials brought up the rear at just under 50 percent.
Locations like Spain, the U.K., Portugal, and France were correctly identified by a large majority of respondents from all age groups: Baby boomers led the way with over 80 percent recognition per country, while Gen Xers hovered between 70 and 80 percent. Millennials once again trailed behind, with percentages in the 60s.
Croatia and the Czech Republic were two notable trend-busters. The former saw millennials and Gen Xers far surpassing baby boomers with their rates of recognition – just 9.3 percent of the oldest generation could locate Croatia on a map. In comparison, more than 22 percent of the two younger demographics were able to do so.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic was the great equaliser. This country was the only one that saw the three generations within 1 percent of each other in terms of accurately identifying its location.
See the World No Matter Where You Are
On the whole, European respondents were better at identifying a host of world countries than Americans. While the two groups were neck and neck when asked to point out well-travelled, populous locations like China and Brazil, the chasm widened with countries like Syria and Egypt.
When it came to respondents from Europe identifying American states, and Americans pinpointing European countries, we noticed a similar trend. People had an easier time locating "tourist" destinations, like California and Florida in the U.S. and France and Spain in Europe.
One interesting difference revealed itself when the data were sliced by generation. Among American respondents, it was baby boomers who reigned supreme, accurately identifying the given countries more frequently than Gen Xers and millennials. However, Europeans flipped the script entirely, with millennials coming out on top, and baby boomers lagging behind in their accuracy.
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To compile the data shown above, we asked Europeans and Americans to take an interactive map survey. We gave each participant a blank world map, with country borders only, and asked them to point out different countries on the map, recording their latitude and longitude coordinates of each mouse click. We then used a reverse geocoder to determine the actual countries clicked. Because this was a survey, we understand not everyone may have taken it completely seriously, so while we show every mouse click, our density maps only show countries with at least five clicks each.
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