In this article, it's claimed that 20% of the US thinks the US is handling the COVID-19 outbreak better than South Korea, 21% think it's about the same, 26% think it's worse, and 32% aren't sure. This is something I find surprising, since for the metrics I've been looking at, South Korea is doing better in every way:

Table comparing S. Korea to US COVID-19 stats

It seems obvious that the 41% of people who think the US is doing as well as or better than South Korea are looking at different metrics than me, and I'd like to know what these other metrics are.

NB: I'm focusing on South Korea because although the original article also says the majority of Americans polled thinks the US outperforms China/Italy, there is a metric that I'm already aware of (total deaths, and in the case of Italy, total cases/deaths per capita) for which the US is doing better than those countries at the time of the poll, so if total deaths is what matters for most Americans then it's defensible to say the US is doing better. I'm not aware of any such metric for South Korea, however, which is why I'm asking.

Alternatively, what else can explain the US poll data?


10 Answers 10


The key assumption you have made is assuming people in the US act sensibly, and that they would base their answer in the poll on facts. This assumption might not be accurate. A recent (Jan 2019) study shows that facts might not be too important in this matter [1].

Inaccurate views of scientific consensus and the willful rejection of scientific consensus. In a 2014 US survey (15), two-thirds of respondents (67%) thought that scientists did “not have a clear understanding about the health effects of GM crops,” despite broad scientific consensus on the topic (16). Similarly, half of Americans (52%) thought scientists were “divided” in the belief that the universe was created in the Big Bang, and about a third each thought that scientists were divided on anthropogenic climate change (37%) and evolution (29%). Of course, these data do not make clear the cause of these inaccurate views, which, arguably, could stem from people being uninformed, intentionally misinformed, or a bit of both.

Furthermore, split-ballot survey experiments have shown that even when Americans do seem to possess accurate knowledge of scientific consensus (however large or small that number may be for a given issue) there is no guarantee that they will integrate that knowledge into their attitudes or policy preferences (17). In other words, these respondents know what the scientific community has established as fact, but they nonetheless refuse to “know” it. Some have therefore argued that rejection of scientifically accurate accounts of the Big Bang or evolution by nonexpert audiences indicates neither a lack of information about scientific consensus nor the presence of misinformation, but, rather, motivated information processing (18). (Highlight mine).

Given that the current US government places little value on facts and that "Make America Great Again" was a slogan in the last election, I find it highly plausible that this is a factor here, too - that a certain amount of people simply want to believe that the US is the best in the world in everything, despite facts showing otherwise.

The study also finds:

When such directional goals influence reasoning processes, individuals are prone to “biased assimilation,” which is characterized by confirmation and disconfirmation bias, or the parallel tendencies to privilege information that is consistent with one’s predispositions and to discredit information that seems contradictory (51). As with selective exposure, motivated reasoning can contribute to an individual becoming misinformed, and it can occur not only in political contexts but also when individuals process information about science and emerging technologies (52–54).

If you want to believe the US is #1 in everything, this seems to be a highly relevant point.

Also, emotional state can be an important factor. And I think we can agree that the current crisis is a very emotional matter, and that believing the US is doing better than anyone else might be reassuring, even if it isn't based on truth.

The role of emotion. This brings us to discussions of the influence of affect in motivated reasoning processes. There is some evidence that a person’s emotional state can shape the accuracy of his or her beliefs. [...] Notably, individuals’ attraction to emotionally charged content is not limited to politics, and even when it comes to scientific discoveries, individuals are more inclined to spread information that has a greater emotional impact (59).

1: Scheufele, Dietram A, and Nicole M Krause. “Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 116,16 (2019): 7662-7669. doi:10.1073/pnas.1805871115

So I think the answer is not that there are any objective metrics that show that the US is handling the crisis better in any way. The fatality rate is magnitudes higher (although it is too early to tell what the toll will be in the end), cases per capita are higher, total cases are higher, et cetera. I don't think there are those metrics that you are looking for. I rather think think it simply shows that a large percentage of the US population is either uninformed or misinformed, for various reasons as outlined above.

From the survey that was linked in the question, we can also see that the opinion on how the US is handling it relative to the rest of the world varies dramatically with the political orientation of the respondent, which would further back up that political orientation plays a significant role in how people perceive facts and responded.

US handling the outbreak, by party affiliation

The poll data for the question relative to South Korea is roughly in the same boat, polarization-wise. Only about 6% of Republicans say the US is doing worse than South Korea, whereas 45% of Democrats say that:

US handling the outbreak compared to SK, by party affiliation

  • 20
    For what it's worth, although the data here is specific to the US and/or COVID-19, there is similar evidence on other topics and in other countries that this is just how humans respond to poll questions.
    – origimbo
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 16:20
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    @origimbo True, and any nation is at risk of the capture of public information based on pitting the "common people" against the "expert class". (note that many "common people"would consider, justifiably, themselves experts in their own field). However only some countries have actively backed political leaders making a play in that direction and the US figures large amongst those. The limitations of those types of by-the-gut leaders faced with unfamiliar challenges are becoming apparent (Trump, Bolsonaro). Boris Johnson is somewhat of an exception, but he's also supposedly quite smart. Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 16:43
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    @araucaria I'm not sure what you are looking for but it's a well known thing in political (or any really) polling. You can hugely change polling outcomes with slight changes to wording, never mind all the other issues you have to deal with. Of course a significant amount of people are going to say "my country is better than the other country" because that's how humans are. We are emotional creatures that use our gut beliefs to justify the facts we believe, not the other way around. There's not a country on Earth that wouldn't have aspects of tribalism creep into a polling question like that
    – eps
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 20:40
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    Many Americans are fed a constant diet of "America is the best" - not in the same way that other countries do of "It's our country and we love it with all its faults" but "America is literally the best country in every possible way". It is unsurprising that those who follow that think the US actions are the best under all possible circumstances. Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 21:05
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    @eps true, but the US has a very special mindset when it comes to seeing themselves as #1, much more than many other nations. the complete over-the-top national pride that is found in the US is not as widespread in many other countries. This extreme pride is certainly a contributing factor to the numbers seen in the poll.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 19:38

This isn't necessarily a full answer, but it's part of the answer that has been addressed yet and is way too long for a comment. I don't necessarily disagree with the other answers about the misperceptions held by Americans but:

America is big.

It's also more diverse than someone simply consuming American media might guess. The states, even in today's climate of strong central government, are more independent than their nearest analogs in most other countries.

Some states (notably New York, with apologies to New Yorkers) have completely bungled the response. Some states (notably California) have done rather better. My own state of Indiana (pop. 6.7 million) has only about 2000 cases.

So the opinion of the person asked about how the US is handling the pandemic response is going to be heavily influenced by how their state is handling the crisis (availability heuristic).

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about whether or not the New York response to the COVID-19 pandemic was adequate has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 7:58

This probably isn't the answer, but you have to remember that there's a major information imbalance here. Local news focuses on the details of the response at the state and local level, and also includes some coverage of the national-level response. Stories are done about other countries, but they're usually just an overview and focus on multiple countries.

I get multiple news programs/newspapers a day that talk about my state/country's response, in detail. I think I saw a (singular) news segment last week about South Korea's response, but it was only a couple of minutes so it couldn't go into a lot of detail.

I consider myself fairly well-informed, but I'll admit that I don't have enough information about the South Korean response to make an intelligent comparison. The percentages that OP quotes show this as well, since 33% of respondents didn't choose any answer (with the only option left being "I don't know" or "I don't have enough information to answer"). The information is certainly out there and available, but you generally have to go actively look for it, and that's not what most people do. They see all sorts of news about things that their country is doing, and have relatively few details about other countries. I would seriously question whether those respondents (regardless of how they answered) truly had enough information to answer intelligently.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that news organizations are doing anything wrong here. Local information is almost always more important in rapidly-changing situations like this, particularly when details change from location to location. I'm simply saying that the underlying question here is comparing plentiful, high-detail information against very specific information that is far less readily available, so respondents likely don't even realize that they don't really have enough information to make a meaningful judgement.

  • 2
    I wish there were some way to metricize this answer, but I'm not sure how it could be done. My gut says this is more the answer, than any of the others, however.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 19:54

I thought my footnote to top answer (which I added while the question was closed) might be all I have to say here (i.e. that political polarization largely explains the US poll), but since a rather misleading claim about actual deaths (per day) was made in the now 2nd most upvoted answer (Hatman's), here's a graph from a March 31 BCC video to debunk that deaths are slowing down in the US:

enter image description here

The faint yellow plot far below the others is South Korea.

The country graphs are all rooted to the 100th case as "day 1". I suggest you watch the full BBC video for more explanations.

The daily number of deaths reported in the US varied widely. Here's another snapshot:

enter image description here

The South Korea's pop is not 100th but about a 10th of US, FYI. So on some (recent) days, the deaths even per pop have been 10 times higher in the US than in SK.

Also, the media usually doesn't report these figures relative to the population size. So the claim from Hatman's answer that Americans scoured the stats for deaths per pop, and just on those days when the US did better than SK and/or discard all other days' information before answering the poll is really improbable as the explanation (which was advanced by Hatman) for the poll results .

Aside (and fairly snide comment): Maybe Mike Pence will convince them otherwise:

Pence said in a CNN interview that White House projections of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths were guided by data from Italy, the first Western nation with a large outbreak.

“They call it modeling… where they look at what’s happened around the world,” Pence said. “We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point.”

Interestingly, I can't find this quote from Pence on Fox News' main site, but it does seem to have been carried by some affiliate/local Fox stations (e.g. Fox 13 Memphis).

I haven't been paying much attention to what Trump has been saying about this, but his messaging has been at times that other countries are clueless e.g. about social distancing. So that may be the kind of info that his supporters believe.


Because many people who take these types of polls don't care about the specific question and use it as a general presidential approval poll

It would have been clearer if they had polled and been able to sort by presidential approval, but party ID will have to suffice as that is very strongly correlated to approval rating.

enter image description here

There is also the subset of people that interpret the question as asking if the US is better off than South Korea as far as being affected by this coronavirus. Which the US undeniably is, due to reasons outside of anyone's control like population density and proximity to the original outbreak site of Wuhan, China. They care about the result that the US IS better off as far as new cases/deaths per 1M people (looking at raw and total # of cases/deaths is irrelevant due to the population size difference between the US and South Korea and the new/more accurate testing methods), and have no interest in the specifics of how things are handled.

  • 7
    Besides the fact that this largely a copycat answer (of the/my footnote to the top one here), your answer makes the additional claim that "the US IS better off as far as new cases/deaths per 1M people". Care to add any actual number to back up that claim? I'm not seeing it true in total. So "new cases" since when? And do you have any evidence anyone besides you might apply this "sliding window" algorithm? Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 17:59
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    I.e. are you really implying that on the day of the poll, people looked up the numbers of new cases & deaths on that day, and said "yeah, we're better than SK in cases/deaths per pop that happen in the past 24hrs, therefore, we're really doing better overall"? Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 18:08
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    The top answer goes on about how americans are misinformed or uninformed, which i don't. And i have no idea why you would add your footnote there as it is only tangentially related to that person's answer. that should be its own answer. also the type of graph you chose is not a good fit for the data being displayed
    – Hatman
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 18:21
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    Is there a date for less deaths per 1M population for the US vs South Korea? The only data I have found appears to be live RealClear puts the US at over 3x the SK rate per head.
    – Jontia
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 18:27
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    Your previous comment is absolutely nonsensical, and an egregious example of cherry-picking and ignoring context. The two highlighted columns are numbers for a single day's change - the following day is as likely for SK to have +12 cases and +0 deaths, while the USA will remain in the hundreds for days or weeks still. Having fewer total cases and fewer total deaths per million people is better in any appropriate sense - the USA has approximately triple the infection rate and triple the mortality.
    – Nij
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 21:01

Because people can vote strategically, and they can answer polls strategically as well. Strategic voting has been found to be prevalent.

Their vote in the election will decide who will have more power. Their answer in a poll will determine what article will be published based on that poll.

When you're asking "Do you think the US handled the outbreak better than Korea", some pollees will just want to get their opinion out. For others, the question they are really answering is "Do I want Huffington Post to publish poll results saying 90% of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the outbreak?"

When you put the question this way - in terms of actual consequences of the answer - it's much easier to see that a sizable proportion of the population would rather such an article was not published, or that it contained less-conclusive poll results.

  • Is there any evidence you have for the claims made in the answer? If so, please add some sources.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 22:43

There is a fairly simple, and I think blatantly obvious, answer. Things like intelligence and education are not equally distributed among the population. Thus you find on the lower end of the distribution people who lack either the general background or the mental capacity to understand what's actually happening in cases like this.

So when you say "...the 41% of people who think the US is doing better than / about the same as South Korea are looking at different metrics than me...", you're making the fundamental mistake of thinking that these people actually ARE looking at metrics of any sort. (Or that many would be capable of comprehending them if they did.) They are simply responding with a knee-jerk "Well, we're Americans. Of course we're doing better!" That links into politics*, where they get their news, whether they believe statements made by the current President... People these days can live in an information bubble, choosing to get only what confirms their beliefs.

*Of course there are also those whose knee-jerk responses &c just the opposite, and you would see this in play in polls asking different questions.

  • 7
    Saying they "lack the mental capacity to understand what's happening" is extremely condescending. Just because they (often willfully) don't understand the situation doesn't mean they're incapable of it. It usually just means they're more interested in aligning with their group than the truth. Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 19:24
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    Modern forms of a general American fecklessness might be more due to insufficient leisure, (i.e. mental fatigue from overwork, long commutes, tedious new forms of time-wasting bureaucracies, our ever changing tech and its many interfaces, et al), IOW a sort of overcapacity or "no vacancy" in everyman's booked up mental hotel, rather than an actual lack of capacity.
    – agc
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 0:01
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    @BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft: You are welcome to your opinions on the mental capacity OR general education of Americans, but I don't think they're supported by evidence, especially when you're looking at the bottom 20% or so. Just as one simple example, consider the way some people insist on being given antibiotics for diseases that are caused by viruses.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 5:14
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    @agc: While of course there are exceptions, I very much doubt that the typical America has insufficient leisure, or is particularly overworked. It's certainly possible to arrange one's life in such a way as to avoid long commutes and most bureaucracies, and if tech interfaces become too complicated or burdensome, simply ignore them. (I do, and I've worked most of my career on the bleeding edge of tech :-))
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 5:21

My answer is based on studies by Michael Kohlberg and the development of cognitive thinking, moral judgement and naive sex-role stereotypes in children. our self-concepts are not the product of information but the result of naive stereotypes.

Not only Americans, no, in all x - countries around the globe there are people who think:

"I’m an x-man, and it is good to be an x-man, it is better to be an x-man, as we are the best! We are the greatest!"

So this believe nothing else than nationalism, chauvinism, patriotism.

e.g. Nationalism and Moral Identity; Covariance of Moral Dimensions of Self with Ethno-Nationalistic Belief

I just wonder why there are only 20%. Are they already caught up by the truth or over taken by reality?


Crosscountry surveys often show high variation in psychological items related to social identities like ethno-nationalism, moral foundations, religiosity etc. Multiple identities of an individual interact within the working-self according to the structural relationship among them and their temporal salience. Self-schemas of moral identity help maintain self-consistency of the working-self by reducing cognitive stress of social identity complexity of multiple identities. We propose that individual and social identities are generally aligned with dimensions of moral identity and the structural relationship between various social identities with moral identity can be found from variations in psychological items in individual and crosscountry surveys.



*Nationalism and Moral Identity: Covariance of Moral Dimensions of Self with Ethno-Nationalistic Beliefs Shafiqur Rahman ([email protected])

Recurrence of populist nationalism in the advanced democracies and reactions against the resurgence show that national identity in individuals is integrally associated with culturally determined value systems. Conflict between different conceptions of an identity is often manifestation of conflict between different value systems. National Identity and Moral Identity belong to multiple social identities that all individuals hold in their self-concepts. Multiple identities of an individual interact within the working-self according to the structural relationship among them and self-schemas of moral identity help maintain self-consistency of the working-self by reducing cognitive stress of multiple identities. We propose that individual and social identities are generally aligned with dimensions of moral identity in the working self and the structural relationship between various social identities with moral identity can be found from covariance in latent construct of identity dimensions developed from observed psychological variables in individual and cross-country surveys. A Structural Equations Modelling (SEM) analysis of responses from 33 diverse countries largely supports our hypotheses.

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    While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. - From Review
    – JJJ
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 0:53
  • I have now changed the passage in bold letters of what I think this text is the resume of the theory of Kohlberg. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 14:25

It's the same reason why they think that cutting taxes for the rich is a good thing. The belief that they are one of the lucky/chosen ones, and that their fortunes are going to improve in the future. The conflation of can and will. Trump plays on this all the time, and also plays on the fact that most people don't actually check what he's said before, especially if what he's saying now buys into their desires.



  • 1
    Re "...the fact that most people don't...": the Huffpost data cited implies that 58% of those polled, (presumably representing "most people"), were not actually mistaken, 58%, being the sum of those 32% who aren't sure, and the 26% who correctly opined the US was doing worse than S. Korea.
    – agc
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 22:46
  • Welcome to Politics! Please try to add references to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 22:49
  • Is that OK for references? Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 23:09
  • It’s generally strongly encouraged to quote the relevant portions of those references in the text of the question, both because people might not want to read a whole article and in case the link breaks in the future
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 1:37

After reading the attempts to quantify the veracity of the comparisons there is an easy answer that does not require putting people down or rationalizing cognitive dissonance.

The actual answer is what does the question mean from the perspective of those answering the question. What people actually think when answering this question: Has the handling of the crisis good for me? and secondarily: If I lived in South Korea would it be good for me?

Of course, if you look at it from the point of view of how the statistics work out, it is very unlikely you are personally directly affected by this particular crisis. I'm not counting staying at home and losing your job, which is an indirect effect and most likely favored as a way of handling the crisis.

  • 2
    Not my downvote, but I was hoping that you could clarify your point a bit. Is the idea that, while SK's efforts were objectively more effective than the US's, from the perspective of an American, one might say that the US's response, no matter how bad it might have been, has done more to help them personally than SK's, no matter how good that might have been for a Korean citizen?
    – divibisan
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 16:40

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