Cognitive Daily

This post on Pharyngula made me realize that most non-Americans really have no occasion to learn the names of U.S. states. As one commenter put it:

That map would be much more useful if it labeled the American states as well. The only ones I can pick off with real certainty are California, Texas, Hawaii and Alaska. I have a good idea of where a lot of the others are generally, but others, I have no idea whereabouts in the US they are. Dakota? No idea. Virginia? Um, in the bottom/east 2/3rds.

It does make sense that non-Americans wouldn’t have learned the names of all the U.S. states, but with all the press about how bad Americans are at world geography, it got me to wondering:

Would non-Americans do better on a test of American geography?
-or-
Would Americans do better on a test of non-American geography?

Now we can find out. I’ve created ten-item geography quizzes on countries of the world and U.S. states. The states and countries were chosen at random. Americans will take the country quiz, and non-Americans will take the state quiz (after you finish, you’ll be given the option to take the other quiz if you’d like).

Click here to take the test

UPDATE: The survey is closed, but you can take a brief version of the test (and see the answers) here.

As usual, the study is brief, with just 11 quick questions (and an option to take 10 more), so it should only take a minute of your time. You have until 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, January 24 to participate — or until we have 500 responses, whichever comes first. Then don’t forget to come back next Friday for our analysis of the results!

Comments

  1. #1 Gus Gus
    January 19, 2007

    The problem with this test is that it compares knowledge of internal country divisions to entire countries. How many americans could name the provinces of Canada, the States of Australia or the oblasts of Russia?

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    January 19, 2007

    The problem with this test is that it compares knowledge of internal country divisions to entire countries. How many americans could name the provinces of Canada, the States of Australia or the oblasts of Russia?

    You have a point — of course it’s unreasonable to expect non-Americans to know U.S. States. I just thought it would be interesting to see if, despite that handicap, non-Americans could do better on a state test than Americans do on a test of nations.

  3. #3 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    If anything, its often more important to know the sizes of places and the distances between them than the places themselves, though being able to read a map helps in both.

    I’ve heard many a horror story of tourists who arrived in JFK in New York City and were expecting to be in Disney World the next day not knowing they were 1,000 miles apart.

    We seem to mentally imagine that all countries, being kinda equal politically, are all the same geological size. The Brits can’t imagine how big America is ’til they get here, and we seem to think its impossible to go from Cornwall to John O’ Groats in a day until we actually get there and do it (something they themselves would never think to try).

    I’ll keep comments on the test to myself ’til next week, to avoid spoiling the answers.

  4. #4 chezjake
    January 19, 2007

    Identifying countries or states is almost more a test of interest in politics and world affairs, I think. Perhaps a test of knowledge of geographical features (rivers, mountains, major lakes, etc.) would provide different results.

    It was a fun little quiz. I think I did quite well in the world and aced the US.

  5. #5 Francis
    January 19, 2007

    I think I need to spend some time with a geography book this weekend. I flunked both.

  6. #6 Natalie
    January 19, 2007

    Goodness those countries were HARD. I had to take the state test just to feel better about my sense of geography (although I think I would have done better with Western European countries than what we were given). If you’re still interested in geography after that quiz, try your hand at geography in the Middle East at http://www.rethinkingschools.org/just_fun/games/mapgame.html

  7. #7 Xerxes
    January 19, 2007

    Another problem seems to be that the world countries were at least partially selected for being in the news. It’s harder to pick out random nowhere countries of no importance than the news-making ones. In that same sense, it’s easier to pick out Florida and California than the unnewsworthy states that were on the quiz.

  8. #8 Mike
    January 19, 2007

    I’m a Brit living in the US so clearly I’ll know more about US geography than the average Brit. I think you should have asked where everyone currently lives and/or whether they’ve lived in the US.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    January 19, 2007

    “Another problem seems to be that the world countries were at least partially selected for being in the news.”

    No, both states and countries were selected completely randomly. To select the countries, I used a random number generator to randomly select the page of a 10-page list of countries, then I randomly selected the country from the chosen page. For states, I simply used 10 random numbers from 1 to 50, then counted down the list for each state. Any connection to newsworthiness was coincidental.

  10. #10 Mark M
    January 19, 2007

    I think I did pretty well, but I’m disappointed that I don’t get to find out how I did.

  11. #11 bcpmoon
    January 19, 2007

    Great test, but keep in mind that the audience is probably, no: certainly not representative.
    Question: Were the maps always aligned to the north? I am more used to mercator maps and found it sometimes hard to translate these “earth-views”.
    And I flunked the american states. Badly. But as Gus Gus (from russia?) pointed out, this test is unfair. It’s like distinguishing between Sachsen and Sachsen/Anhalt.
    But: I enjoyed it.

  12. #12 coturnix
    January 19, 2007

    I used to know all 50 states when I was in 6th grade, many years before I came to the US, just for fun, in alphabetical order, but had no idea where to find them on the map.

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    January 19, 2007

    Unfortunately, giving instant feedback is beyond my programming skills. But I’ll post the answers as soon as the survey is full.

  14. #14 Lab Cat
    January 19, 2007

    I had hadn’t realized how much geography changes. All those new European countries weren’t there when I was at high school.

    I think having to know all the countries in the whole world vs. US states is a little unfair. I still get my Western states confused, probably because the only time I’ve lived on the west of the Mississippi was when I live in Minneapolis!

    Great quiz. I wonder if I’ll remember my answers to be able to compare.

  15. #15 brtkrbzhnv
    January 19, 2007

    I’m Swedish, and I found that state test impossible; 2/11 is .2 worse than chance, and I wasn’t sure of either of those two. I only really know Hawaii, Florida, Texas, California, Alaska, and Washington. On the world quiz, on the other hand, there were only three (Balkan, South America, Arabia) I wasn’t absolutely certain about.

    Games like World Empire IV, Backpacker 2, and Hearts of Iron II have given me a rough idea about where countries are and which are adjacent to which.

  16. #16 Evan
    January 19, 2007

    What’s sad is that it seems a forgon conclusion that Americans will do worse at the nations test than the world will at the states. I shudder to think how I scored – hopefully better than random chance, but still.

    Curious how much better, if any, non-americans will do with the whole world, though.

    Another good geography game:

    http://www.geosense.net

  17. #17 Libby Blue
    January 19, 2007

    “Should only take a minute?” Are you insane?? I agonized over these. I haven’t taken a proper world geography class since elementary school (in high school they seem to think you need to know more about Canadian geography and earth science), so this involved wracking my brain for “which shape was on that ‘lucky in kentucky’ t-shirt?” “Which countries do I still remember from Russian history?” “Okay, now which countries do I know are NOT near my ancestors’ native Sweden?” and “Out of all the refugees my parents have sponsored over the years, which family Ease the Culture Shock lectures do I still recall?” (Serbia. Ethiopia.) And I know very very little about the wee little Pacific nations. I finally had to guess between two possibilities on all of those. I nearly missed Vietnam. At least my first Spanish instructor insisted on our being able to properly label a map of South America. (Montevideo!) Urg.

    As for the geographical ignorance of many Americans, it goes well beyond lackluster map skills. About ten years ago (god I’m old) I attended a youth conference on Toronto, Ontario. Some Americans attending same were in the hotel room across the hall from us. One of my roommates had the idea of pitting Canadians against Americans. The deal was that she would attempt, with no help or reference materials, to list as many of the American states as she could, and her American opponent would try to list all the Canadian provinces and territories. She even explicitly specified that there are several provinces, fewer territories, for a total of twelve. (Pre-Nunavut.) For one hour, the race was on.

    In the end, my roommate had managed to name (and correctly spell) forty-two states. Her American opponent had listed Ontario, Qwebec, Prince Edward Island, and Toronto. *headdesk* Maybe she thought it was kind of like New York? Oie.

    I’ll bet at this point I can name all fifty, but I was guessing a bit on those blocky middle ones. Colorado in relation to Phoenix, AZ. (Lost luggage.) Ohio was included again and again, but it wasn’t mapped. (Thanks, Over the Rhine.) My ex is in Nevada. Katrina refreshed memory of LA and its environs. Maybe it would be a little much to expect an American to properly label all of the Maritimes. But to not know any of the names?

    Anyway. I think I got Indonesia, but if I was wrong and that other one *should* have been Kansas, I blame the general pointlessness of knowing state-shape over driving distance. I’ll take the practical knowledge, like knowing that California is indeed very large and much of that largeness is between Sebastopol and LA, making visiting friends in both places in one week quite challenging.

  18. #18 Donna
    January 19, 2007

    Ugh! That non-US test was ugly! I took the US test just to feel less clueless.

  19. #19 Katherine
    January 19, 2007

    I definitely know all states, and not that many countries.

    I can pinpoint exactly where all of my knowledge comes from. In school we hardly did any geography. We did learn the African countries and the middle east. That’s basically it. I don’t think we ever even learned all of the states. I just did that on my own. However, this means I didn’t learn any countries other than the ones I mentioned as well as European ones.

  20. #20 P-A
    January 19, 2007

    Hi,
    I am european now living in S’pore. The US-state was really tough for me as many of the states in the Multiple choice are nearby the one you point out. Just to test, I came up with 48 states on a piece of paper (still miss 2..) but often with just a general idea or were they are (2 o’clock, slightly east for Pennsylvania?.. North on east coastal area for Maine..?)

    Quick note: I’m not too sure it is reasonable to expect non asian residents to know where malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are on the island they have in common (Borneo). I do because I currently reside in singapore .. but hard to expect from others.
    Might be better to repoint the pin to the major island of Sumatra for Indonesia, or to repoint it slightly south on Jakarta..
    Here a map to clarify my comments if still unclear: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/indonesia_rel_2002.jpg

    .. This was assuming you did not want to test the knowledge of inner Indonesia, the way you test the knowledge of inner US of course :)..

    Thanks for this.. really enjoyed it!

  21. #21 Muschka from Czech Republic
    January 20, 2007

    Well, I think this shows how Americans look at the Outside-world. There is no U.S. and Rest of the World, there is more than 200 countries and U.S. is just one of them.
    I am really surprised, that someone can actually compare U.S. states and other countries. I know that U.S. has a huge influence throughout the world, but still, point me at some China provinces or Spanish regions.

    I am not offended, I am just surprised that you really think that way.

  22. #22 L
    January 20, 2007

    I have a theory that depending where you live (or have lived) in the USA dictates whether or not you can identify some states. I live in California and have little need on a day-to-day basis to know exactly which mid-west state is which on a map, but if I lived there perhaps I would have a more working knowledge of it.
    Or maybe that’s what I tell myself so I feel better after I fail an online geography quiz.

  23. #23 Chris
    January 20, 2007

    Well, if you haven’t taken geography in 10+ years, several of those countries didn’t EXIST when you studied it. US state boundaries have been stable for something like a century, I think.

    Aside from that, though, the consensus of this thread that it’s unreasonable to expect a non-American to know *internal divisions* of the US, let alone with anything near the same level of knowledge as anyone should know about countries of the world, seems accurate, but I wish you had given the countries test to everyone regardless of their origin, just to see if Americans really are as ignorant of world geography as everyone seems to think. Allowing people to self-select whether they take the whole test or not will limit the applicability of the results. (Setting aside the sampling issues inherent in a voluntary online quiz promoted through a blog, of course.)

  24. #24 Meghan
    January 20, 2007

    Why do you close the surveys after 500 responses?

  25. #25 Alvaro
    January 20, 2007

    Being a Basque/ Spaniard living in the US, I fully agree with Gus Gus and Muschka. It is not symmetrical to compare regions inside one country with world countries.

    Fun in any case.

  26. #26 bioephemera
    January 21, 2007

    I’m a little paranoid about new countries ever since I assumed someone from Macedonia was Greek. I based that on Alexander the Great’s father being Philip of Macedon, but oh, did I step in it! He wasn’t from the Greek province of Macedonia, he was from the newly formed country of Macedonia, which was engaged in a dispute with Greece about the name. But instead of explaining that, he just yelled at me about American ignorance until I slunk away, resolving to eschew all conversation involving Central and Eastern European nomenclature.

  27. #27 SmellyTerror
    January 21, 2007

    As an Australian – from an English-speaking nation but with a relatively small economy and entertainment industry – I think I could name all the states, and probably put at least half of them in the right spot.

    US entertainment is in our language and cheaper than making it, so a good half of our TV is American. It’d be more if not for laws stipulating a minimum Australian content.

    (I live in the capital of Australia, which (it seems) almost no-one outside of the country actually knows).

    With the US being such an entertainment powerhouse, and with vast segments of the ‘net basically assuming you’re American, I think it’s inevitable that the English-speaking online world poplation (ie the folk reading this site) will know a lot more about the US than Americans will know about the rest of the world (in general, of course).

  28. #28 SmellyTerror
    January 21, 2007

    I based that on Alexander the Great’s father being Philip of Macedon…

    …but Alexander wasn’t Greek either. Man, you’re just going to get in more trouble going on like that!
    :P

    If you want to see similar reactions, find a proud Welshman and call him a Scot, or accuse any Canadian outside of North America of being from the US.

    Regarding American “ignorance”: again, consider the disparity of communications. Pretty much the entire planet watches American movies and TV. Americans, on the other hand, are the direct targets of the saturation-bombing entertainment offensive. So not only do you *not* have anything like the large cheap source of foreign entertainment that the rest of us do, you don’t have much reason to tap what is available. You’ve got your own stuff.

    So, yeah, it is relative ignorance, but it’s not your fault. Any population would respond the same way to ungodly mountains of juicy, targetted information.

  29. #29 Dave Munger
    January 21, 2007

    Hi everyone —

    Just back from the scienceblogging conference, and I see the survey is already full! I’ll try and get the answers up later today (though as usual, the analysis will have to wait until next friday). Maybe I’ll even figure out a way for people to keep playing (We have to limit our responses on Survey Monkey, because it costs us 5 cents a pop. If we got Dugg or something, we’d be out a couple hundred bucks).

    Anyone know of a cheaper survey site?

  30. #30 amylu
    January 21, 2007

    oops, i was gonna take the survey but it was FULL–why close it down at 500?

  31. #31 SmellyTerror
    January 22, 2007

    Amylu: look up one post.
    :P

  32. #32 Helen
    January 22, 2007

    “Well, if you haven’t taken geography in 10+ years, several of those countries didn’t EXIST when you studied it. US state boundaries have been stable for something like a century, I think”

    But then surely you should know more about those countries than other countries as they will have been in the news more because of the wars/politics that have divided them up?

  33. #33 Dave Munger
    January 22, 2007

    I’m not too sure it is reasonable to expect non asian residents to know where malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are on the island they have in common (Borneo). I do because I currently reside in singapore .. but hard to expect from others.
    Might be better to repoint the pin to the major island of Sumatra for Indonesia, or to repoint it slightly south on Jakarta..

    Yes, that’s a tough one, and I think it was the hardest question on the test. I’m not sure it’s unfair though — it is, after all, a national boundary, not an internal boundary. I suspect overall the test would have been easier with a political map rather than the Google Earth maps I used.

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