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Here’s What Happens When You Ask 400 People Where All 50 States Are

Who had time for high school geography?

Chris Kolmar

Chief Armchair Economist

161 articles, 137 comments

It’s no surprise that Americans aren’t especially knowledgeable when it comes to matters of geography. National Geographic’s 2006 Geographic Literacy Survey  of Americans aged 18 to 24 resulted in some rather unpleasant findings: Only 50% could identify New York on an unlabeled map, and a mere 43% could locate Ohio. And while 67% could find Louisiana, just 52% knew which state was Mississippi.

When quizzed on the location of 7 states, the survey respondents could only correctly identify an average of 3.4. The good news is that 94% do know where the United States itself is – the bad news is that 3 out of 10 thought the U.S. population was between 1 to 2 billion.

Other findings aren’t much more promising. When a BuzzFeed writer asked people to draw a U.S. map on a blank sheet of paper, the results ranged from serious efforts, to the outright comical, to giving up entirely – even when the maps weren’t full of “I don’t know” and “???,” entire regions of the country were often absent.  Furthermore, New Mexico Magazine runs an ongoing column  recounting stories of Americans who were unaware that New Mexico is a state at all, which seems funny until you realize that these people are working as bank tellers, postal workers, and even travel agents.

To get a better sense of just how confused people are about the 50 states, we took a unique real-time look at hundreds of people’s attempts to locate all of the states on an unlabeled map. For each of the states, our quiz-takers were given 5 seconds to move their cursors to the correct area of the map. Meanwhile, we were watching our own map: the combined, live data of exactly how they moved their mice when searching for the right state. We observed as their pointers flocked from state to state by the dozen and took note of some of the most interesting patterns.

Predictably, our respondents had an easy time recognizing some of the largest and most iconic U.S. states: California, Texas, Florida, Alaska, and Hawaii were almost universally identified correctly. This reflects the National Geographic survey’s findings, in which Texas and California were located accurately 92% of the time. While we saw most of our respondents make quick work of finding New York, a substantial segment also seemed to hover over Pennsylvania. The National Geographic survey confirms this is a common mistake – 13% of the Americans they surveyed thought Pennsylvania was New York.

Outside of this handful of well-known states, our quiz-takers didn’t fare so well. Most often, a state was confused with a neighboring state of a similar size and shape. When asked to find Virginia, the respondents who got it wrong clumped in nearby Kentucky and North Carolina.  This is certainly understandable, considering how much they look alike on an unlabeled map. On the question of Mississippi, some of the most popular wrong answers were Alabama, Louisiana, and even Arkansas; National Geographic likewise found that 11% of their respondents thought Alabama was Mississippi.

Errors were especially rampant when it came to the numerous Western states with straight-line borders. When asked to find Arizona, respondents’ answers were about evenly placed in Arizona and New Mexico, and the same thing happened when they were asked to locate New Mexico. Oklahoma was often placed in Kansas or Colorado, and Utah and Wyoming were frequently misidentified as Colorado. Wyoming, in turn, sent some respondents’ cursors flocking to Colorado and even Nebraska.

The Midwest, too, was a challenge for most people: Mitten-shaped Michigan and Wisconsin were often mistaken for each other, despite being divided by a great lake, and both Illinois and Ohio were frequently placed in Indiana. (10% of National Geographic survey respondents also mistook Indiana for Ohio.)

Perhaps no region was more difficult than the tiny states of New England, where utter pandemonium reigned. Although most of the answers for Maine were correct, Delaware was often placed in Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maryland. Rhode Island generated similar answers, with some respondents even placing it in New Jersey. Meanwhile, New Hampshire and Vermont were placed all over New England, and Massachusetts was frequently mislabeled as Connecticut. Clearly, plenty of our quiz-takers were simply guessing their way through New England.

It’s not all bad – most people seem to have a good grasp of the broad strokes, correctly mapping the edges of the country from Texas to California, Florida to Maine, Alaska to Hawaii. But on the finer points of the nation’s interior, people will often get lost in the jumble of the Western, Midwestern and Northeastern states. Altogether, most of us are off to a good start, but we could definitely use some brushing up. And lest you start feeling superior, ask yourself: Could you place all 50 states?

**The video represents the collective guesses of around 400 survey takers.  Each color coded circle is a survey taker’s mouse position, as they move their mouse to whichever state they believe fit the given label.  Each survey taker was unable to see the other user’s guesses as they took the survey.  The color of each cursor matches the location each respective survey taker resides.  

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posted on: March 30, 2014
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