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Measuring Perceptions of Uncertainty

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What is the difference between an event that is probable and one that is highly likely?

The two terms seem mostly interchangeable, but each individual’s interpretation is actually highly subjective. That means that when stakes are high, such as for the intelligence community or for high-ranking government officials, a slight misinterpretation in the meaning of these phrases could be a matter of life and death.

Sherman Kent and the CIA

Sherman Kent, often described as the “father of intelligence analysis”, was a CIA analyst that recognized the problem of using imprecise statements of uncertainty. Particularly, Kent was jolted by how policymakers interpreted the phrase “serious possibility” in a national estimate about the odds of a Soviet attack on Yugoslavia in 1951. After asking around, he found that some thought this meant a 20% chance of attack, while others ascribed an 80% chance to the phrase. Most people were somewhere in the middle.

Inspired by Kent’s work, a later study asked 23 NATO officers to assign actual numbers to terms like “probably”, “almost certain”, “little chance”, “unlikely”, and other words of estimated probability.

The results were fascinating:

NATO Officer study

Interpretations are all over the map. The words are not precise to begin with, but it’s also worth keeping in mind that people attribute meaning to these phrases based on their personalities, backgrounds, and prior experiences. Context also matters.

How Do We Interpret These Terms?

Although the consequences are less severe for us civilians, we are stuck in the same quandary today.

We’re almost certain a deal will go through, or there’s little chance a candidate will win the presidency. People interpret these terms differently, and these small differences still impact our lives.

Reddit user zonination set out to recreate the poll to see if perceptions of words today matched up with data from the study inspired by Sherman Kent. The results below are very similar, and can help us communicate more clearly, particularly when the stakes are high.

Perceptions of Uncertainty Words

The same idea was also taken a step further, to look at potential misunderstandings that can occur when we use phrases instead of hard numbers.

For example, one person’s a few is another person’s several:

Perceptions of Numbers

If you want to communicate with precision, it’s best to use numbers or specific odds.

Otherwise, be aware that a term like “improbable” can have a considerable range of interpretations – from 0% to 50% – depending on who you are talking to!

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War

Interactive: Comparing Military Spend Around the World

Which countries have the highest military spend relative to their economy? This visual breaks down the amount spent in each country by GDP.

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A map showing countries' military spend as a percentage of their gross domestic product.

Comparing Military Spend Around the World

One of the easiest ways to identify a nation’s priorities is by tracking its expenditures, and military spend is no different.

Usually spending is measured, and ranked, in absolute amounts. For example, countries around the world collectively spent $2.1 trillion on their militaries in 2021, with the most coming from the U.S. ($800 billion), China ($293 billion), and India ($77 billion).

But these eye-popping figures are best understood in the context of each country’s economy. Using data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Varun Jain has visualized 158 countries’ military expenditures, both as a percentage of their total GDP as well as in average per-capita spend.

Countries’ Military Spend as a Percentage of their Economy

To begin, Jain identified three categories of military expenditure as a percent of GDP, using the five-year (2018‒2022) average for more consistent data:

Military Spend% of GDPCountries
HighAbove 5%7
Medium2‒5%44
LowBelow 2%107

Under this categorization, the stand outs are the countries spending an outsized amount of their economic output on military, rather than the highest total spenders in absolute terms.

At the top of the table is Ukraine, which has earmarked a staggering average of 9.46% of its total economic output on defense over the past five years. That’s well ahead of second-place Saudi Arabia, which is slightly above 8%.

In Ukraine’s case, its high ranking shows how quickly priorities can change. From 2018 to 2021, the country spent 3.2-3.8% of its GDP on its military, but the outbreak of war with Russia saw its expenditures jump to one-third of economic output.

Other countries from the Middle East and North Africa follow in this tier, with Oman third at 8.11% and Qatar fourth with 5.88%. Rounding out the top seven high spenders are Algeria, Kuwait, and Israel.

RankCountryMilitary Spend% of GDP
1🇺🇦 UkraineHigh9.46%
2🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaHigh8.19%
3🇴🇲 OmanHigh8.11%
4🇶🇦 QatarHigh5.88%
5🇩🇿 AlgeriaHigh5.70%
6🇰🇼 KuwaitHigh5.66%
7🇮🇱 IsraelHigh5.09%
8🇯🇴 JordanMedium4.81%
9🇦🇲 ArmeniaMedium4.53%
10🇦🇿 AzerbaijanMedium4.53%
11🇱🇧 LebanonMedium4.01%
12🇷🇺 RussiaMedium3.98%
13🇧🇭 BahrainMedium3.79%
14🇵🇰 PakistanMedium3.75%
15🇲🇦 MoroccoMedium3.72%
16🇺🇿 UzbekistanMedium3.56%
17🇺🇸 U.S.Medium3.48%
18🇨🇴 ColombiaMedium3.24%
19🇬🇷 GreeceMedium3.15%
20🇳🇦 NamibiaMedium3.09%
21🇧🇳 BruneiMedium3.09%
22🇸🇸 South SudanMedium3.05%
23🇹🇬 TogoMedium3.03%
24🇲🇱 MaliMedium2.90%
25🇨🇺 CubaMedium2.88%
26🇸🇬 SingaporeMedium2.86%
27🇧🇼 BotswanaMedium2.86%
28🇲🇲 MyanmarMedium2.76%
29🇧🇫 Burkina FasoMedium2.70%
30🇮🇶 IraqMedium2.69%
31🇰🇷 South KoreaMedium2.69%
32🇨🇬 Republic of CongoMedium2.68%
33🇹🇩 ChadMedium2.66%
34🇮🇳 IndiaMedium2.58%
35🇹🇳 TunisiaMedium2.58%
36🇪🇨 EcuadorMedium2.34%
37🇮🇷 IranMedium2.32%
38🇻🇳 Viet NamMedium2.28%
39🇰🇭 CambodiaMedium2.26%
40🇲🇷 MauritaniaMedium2.24%
41🇳🇪 NigerMedium2.21%
42🇧🇮 BurundiMedium2.21%
43🇹🇷 TurkeyMedium2.19%
44🇵🇱 PolandMedium2.17%
45🇱🇻 LatviaMedium2.14%
46🇱🇹 LithuaniaMedium2.13%
47🇪🇪 EstoniaMedium2.13%
48🇬🇧 United KingdomMedium2.12%
49🇺🇾 UruguayMedium2.11%
50🇷🇸 SerbiaMedium2.06%
51🇺🇬 UgandaMedium2.02%
52🇭🇷 CroatiaLow1.97%
53🇦🇺 AustraliaLow1.93%
54🇨🇱 ChileLow1.92%
55🇫🇷 FranceLow1.91%
56🇨🇾 CyprusLow1.90%
57🇷🇴 RomaniaLow1.87%
58🇧🇬 BulgariaLow1.85%
59🇸🇿 EswatiniLow1.82%
60🇳🇴 NorwayLow1.81%
61🇨🇫 Central African RepublicLow1.78%
62🇱🇰 Sri LankaLow1.77%
63🇵🇹 PortugalLow1.77%
64🇹🇼 TaiwanLow1.76%
65🇨🇳 ChinaLow1.72%
66🇬🇪 GeorgiaLow1.71%
67🇸🇰 SlovakiaLow1.67%
68🇬🇼 Guinea-BissauLow1.65%
69🇰🇬 KyrgyzstanLow1.62%
70🇬🇳 GuineaLow1.61%
71🇫🇮 FinlandLow1.60%
72🇸🇳 SenegalLow1.58%
73🇭🇳 HondurasLow1.56%
74🇬🇦 GabonLow1.56%
75🇲🇿 MozambiqueLow1.56%
76🇱🇸 LesothoLow1.56%
77🇲🇪 MontenegroLow1.54%
78🇫🇯 FijiLow1.54%
79🇯🇲 JamaicaLow1.49%
80🇦🇴 AngolaLow1.48%
81🇮🇹 ItalyLow1.48%
82🇭🇺 HungaryLow1.48%
83🇧🇴 BoliviaLow1.46%
84🇸🇨 SeychellesLow1.43%
85🇳🇱 NetherlandsLow1.41%
86🇸🇩 SudanLow1.39%
87🇷🇼 RwandaLow1.39%
88🇳🇵 NepalLow1.36%
89🇩🇰 DenmarkLow1.36%
90🇦🇱 AlbaniaLow1.34%
91🇪🇸 SpainLow1.34%
92🇹🇭 ThailandLow1.33%
93🇦🇫 AfghanistanLow1.33%
94🇳🇿 New ZealandLow1.32%
95🇨🇦 CanadaLow1.32%
96🇩🇪 GermanyLow1.31%
97🇲🇰 North MacedoniaLow1.30%
98🇧🇷 BrazilLow1.29%
99🇧🇿 BelizeLow1.28%
100🇸🇻 El SalvadorLow1.28%
101🇧🇩 BangladeshLow1.26%
102🇿🇲 ZambiaLow1.25%
103🇬🇶 Equatorial GuineaLow1.24%
104🇬🇾 GuyanaLow1.22%
105🇨🇮 Cote d'IvoireLow1.22%
106🇪🇬 EgyptLow1.20%
107🇵🇪 PeruLow1.20%
108🇧🇾 BelarusLow1.18%
109🇸🇪 SwedenLow1.17%
110🇰🇪 KenyaLow1.13%
111🇸🇮 SloveniaLow1.10%
112🇹🇱 Timor LesteLow1.08%
113🇹🇿 TanzaniaLow1.05%
114🇨🇲 CameroonLow1.04%
115🇹🇯 TajikistanLow1.03%
116🇯🇵 JapanLow1.03%
117🇧🇪 BelgiumLow1.02%
118🇱🇷 LiberiaLow1.00%
119🇲🇾 MalaysiaLow0.98%
120🇵🇭 PhilippinesLow0.96%
121🇵🇾 ParaguayLow0.95%
122🇽🇰 KosovoLow0.95%
123🇿🇦 South AfricaLow0.94%
124🇲🇼 MalawiLow0.92%
125🇧🇦 Bosnia and HerzegovinaLow0.84%
126🇰🇿 KazakhstanLow0.83%
127🇦🇹 AustriaLow0.78%
128🇬🇲 GambiaLow0.76%
129🇹🇹 Trinidad & TobagoLow0.75%
130🇮🇩 IndonesiaLow0.74%
131🇨🇭 SwitzerlandLow0.73%
132🇨🇿 Czech RepublicLow0.71%
133🇩🇴 Dominican RepublicLow0.70%
134🇲🇳 MongoliaLow0.69%
135🇲🇬 MadagascarLow0.68%
136🇨🇩 Dem. Rep. of CongoLow0.64%
137🇳🇬 NigeriaLow0.64%
138🇪🇹 EthiopiaLow0.64%
139🇸🇱 Sierra LeoneLow0.64%
140🇦🇷 ArgentinaLow0.63%
141🇱🇺 LuxembourgLow0.61%
142🇲🇽 MexicoLow0.61%
143🇳🇮 NicaraguaLow0.60%
144🇨🇻 Cape VerdeLow0.54%
145🇧🇯 BeninLow0.54%
146🇲🇹 MaltaLow0.48%
147🇬🇹 GuatemalaLow0.45%
148🇬🇭 GhanaLow0.43%
149🇵🇬 Papua New GuineaLow0.38%
150🇲🇩 MoldovaLow0.36%
151🇮🇪 IrelandLow0.27%
152🇿🇼 ZimbabweLow0.26%
153🇻🇪 VenezuelaLow0.20%
154🇭🇹 HaitiLow0.17%
155🇲🇺 MauritiusLow0.16%
156🇨🇷 Costa RicaLow0.00%
157🇮🇸 IcelandLow0.00%
158🇵🇦 PanamaLow0.00%

The medium group consists of 44 countries and is led by four nations (Jordan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Lebanon) that all spend more than 4% of their GDP on their militaries. Other familiar countries known to have large military budgets, like Russia, Pakistan, the U.S., India and the UK, are also in this category.

The low spend group has a total of 107 countries, but also contains some surprises. For example, China, France, and Germany—all in the top 10 countries by absolute military spend—actually have similar amounts of military spend as a percent of GDP as Georgia, Cyprus, and North Macedonia respectively.

At the bottom of the table are countries with either low military importance, or strange technicalities. For example, Mauritius is one of the countries with the lowest military budgets because it doesn’t officially have a standing military, instead relying on two paramilitary forces (a special mobile force and a Coast Guard).

Similarly, Iceland allocates 0% of its GDP towards military spending. In place of a standing army, the country maintains a specialized peacekeeping force, a substantial Coast Guard, and relies on security alliances within NATO, of which it is a member and provides financial support to.

Ranking Defense Spending Per Capita

While the measure above equalizes military spend on economic strength, per-capita military spending shows how much countries allocate while accounting for population size.

On a per-capita basis (again using a five-year average), Qatar leads the ranks with a per-capita spend of $4,564, well-ahead of Israel at $2,535, and Saudi Arabia at $1,928.

RankCountryPer Capita Spend ($)
1🇶🇦 Qatar$4,564
2🇮🇱 Israel$2,535
3🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia$1,928
4🇸🇬 Singapore$1,837
5🇰🇼 Kuwait$1,815
6🇺🇸 U.S.$1,815
7🇳🇴 Norway$1,438
8🇴🇲 Oman$1,254
9🇦🇺 Australia$1,131
10🇧🇳 Brunei$959
11🇬🇧 UK$913
12🇰🇷 South Korea$894
13🇧🇭 Bahrain$863
14🇩🇰 Denmark$861
15🇫🇷 France$811
16🇫🇮 Finland$801
17🇳🇱 Netherlands$765
18🇱🇺 Luxembourg$694
19🇸🇪 Sweden$662
20🇨🇭 Switzerland$647
21🇨🇦 Canada$645
22🇬🇷 Greece$629
23🇩🇪 Germany$623
24🇳🇿 New Zealand$610
25🇪🇪 Estonia$535
26🇹🇼 Taiwan$495
27🇮🇹 Italy$494
28🇧🇪 Belgium$487
29🇷🇺 Russia$467
30🇱🇹 Lithuania$463
31🇵🇹 Portugal$417
32🇱🇻 Latvia$405
33🇨🇾 Cyprus$399
34🇯🇵 Japan$398
35🇪🇸 Spain$395
36🇦🇹 Austria$393
37🇵🇱 Poland$359
38🇺🇾 Uruguay$354
39🇸🇰 Slovakia$334
40🇱🇧 Lebanon$334
41🇸🇮 Slovenia$302
42🇺🇦 Ukraine$302
43🇭🇷 Croatia$294
44🇨🇱 Chile$292
45🇷🇴 Romania$258
46🇭🇺 Hungary$248
47🇮🇪 Ireland$235
48🇸🇨 Seychelles$230
49🇦🇿 Azerbaijan$226
50🇩🇿 Algeria$219
51🇦🇲 Armenia$217
52🇧🇼 Botswana$215
53🇯🇴 Jordan$207
54🇹🇷 Turkey$199
55🇨🇴 Colombia$197
56🇧🇬 Bulgaria$194
57🇨🇳 China$183
58🇲🇹 Malta$175
59🇨🇿 Czech Republic$175
60🇮🇷 Iran$169
61🇳🇦 Namibia$159
62🇮🇶 Iraq$145
63🇪🇨 Ecuador$138
64🇲🇪 Montenegro$137
65🇷🇸 Serbia$133
66🇹🇹 Trinidad & Tobago$131
67🇬🇦 Gabon$124
68🇲🇦 Morocco$122
69🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea$112
70🇲🇾 Malaysia$109
71🇧🇷 Brazil$107
72🇹🇭 Thailand$97
73🇬🇾 Guyana$92
74🇹🇳 Tunisia$91
75🇫🇯 Fiji$83
76🇲🇰 North Macedonia$83
77🇰🇿 Kazakhstan$82
78🇵🇪 Peru$81
79🇬🇪 Georgia$80
80🇧🇾 Belarus$80
81🇯🇲 Jamaica$77
82🇦🇱 Albania$76
83🇸🇿 Eswatini$72
84🇱🇰 Sri Lanka$69
85🇦🇷 Argentina$66
86🇧🇿 Belize$60
87🇲🇽 Mexico$59
88🇩🇴 Dominican Republic$58
89🇻🇳 Viet Nam$58
90🇿🇦 South Africa$56
91🇸🇻 El Salvador$54
92🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina$54
93🇮🇳 India$53
94🇨🇬 Republic of Congo$53
95🇵🇾 Paraguay$52
96🇧🇴 Bolivia$51
97🇵🇰 Pakistan$49
98🇺🇿 Uzbekistan$44
99🇦🇴 Angola$43
100🇽🇰 Kosovo$42
101🇲🇷 Mauritania$42
102🇭🇳 Honduras$42
103🇪🇬 Egypt$41
104🇰🇭 Cambodia$36
105🇲🇲 Myanmar$35
106🇵🇭 Philippines$33
107🇲🇳 Mongolia$33
108🇮🇩 Indonesia$31
109🇧🇩 Bangladesh$27
110🇹🇱 Timor Leste$27
111🇲🇱 Mali$26
112🇸🇳 Senegal$24
113🇨🇮 Cote d'Ivoire$23
114🇹🇬 Togo$21
115🇰🇪 Kenya$21
116🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan$20
117🇧🇫 Burkina Faso$20
118🇬🇳 Guinea$19
119🇱🇸 Lesotho$19
120🇨🇻 Cape Verde$19
121🇬🇹 Guatemala$19
122🇹🇩 Chad$18
123🇸🇸 South Sudan$18
124🇸🇩 Sudan$18
125🇺🇬 Uganda$18
126🇿🇼 Zimbabwe$17
127🇿🇲 Zambia$16
128🇲🇺 Mauritius$16
129🇨🇲 Cameroon$16
130🇳🇵 Nepal$15
131🇳🇬 Nigeria$14
132🇳🇮 Nicaragua$12
133🇬🇼 Guinea-Bissau$12
134🇹🇿 Tanzania$12
135🇨🇺 Cuba$11
136🇷🇼 Rwanda$11
137🇲🇩 Moldova$11
138🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea$10
139🇳🇪 Niger$10
140🇹🇯 Tajikistan$9
141🇨🇫 Central African Republic$8
142🇲🇿 Mozambique$8
143🇬🇭 Ghana$8
144🇧🇯 Benin$7
145🇧🇮 Burundi$7
146🇦🇫 Afghanistan$6
147🇬🇲 Gambia$6
148🇪🇹 Ethiopia$5
149🇻🇪 Venezuela$5
150🇲🇼 Malawi$4
151🇸🇱 Sierra Leone$3
152🇲🇬 Madagascar$3
153🇨🇩 Dem. Rep. of Congo$3
154🇱🇷 Liberia$3
155🇭🇹 Haiti$2
156🇨🇷 Costa Rica$0
157🇮🇸 Iceland$0
158🇵🇦 Panama$0

Measured this way, we get a perspective of how small defense budgets can be per person, even if the total expenditure is large.

For example, India has the fourth-highest total defense expenditure in 2022, but because of its massive population only sets aside $53 per resident for its military, putting it solidly at the bottom third of the per-capita rankings.

Patterns Revealed By Measuring Military Spend

Changing how we look at a country’s military budget can reveal a lot more than just looking at absolute numbers.

For example, the Middle East is the region with the highest spenders on defense as a percentage of their GDP, giving us insight into regional security concerns.

Countries from the medium group of military spending—including parts of Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia—highlight past or recent conflict zones between neighbors, countries with internal strife, or countries wary of a regional aggressor. Ukraine’s average per capita military spend, for example, was just $122.4 from 2018 to 2021. The next year, it jumped nearly 10 times to $1,018.66 per person after Russia’s invasion.

In fact, European military spending saw its sharpest one-year jump in 30 years as a direct result of the war.

Alongside European anxieties, ongoing tension between China and Taiwan has also contributed to increased military spending in Asia and Oceania. Will these budgets continue their dramatic ascent or will they rise evenly alongside their relative economies in 2023?

Data note: For these comparisons, the creator is calculating five-year averages (using data from 2018-2022) for military spending as a percentage of GDP and per-capita military spending for each country. The military expenditure data is pulled from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Data for some countries is missing or may vary significantly from official figures. Countries with up to
two years of missing data had averages calculated on the years available, while countries with three or more years of missing data have been removed from this dataset, including: Djibouti, Eritrea, North Korea, Laos, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, UAE, and Yemen.

Please see SIPRI’s methodologies page for more details on how they collect their data and create estimates.

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