Sunday, January 08, 2012

Crunching the Facebook Numbers: How Many Meditators Are There?

One of the most persistent claims made by the TM movement is that there are currently about one million people practicing Transcendental Meditation in the United States. There is very little evidence to support this claim, other than the fact that, according to the movement's own records, about 919,000 people learned TM in the US between 1968 and 1977. This figure was once published in a chapter on the TM movement in the 1986 book, The future of religion: secularization, revival, and cult formation.

This figure, while interesting, may not be relevant today. As many former TM teachers and even meditators have noted, the dropout rate among new meditators is very high, with many giving up the practice in as little as six months or less. Informally, anecdotally, it's relatively easy to run into people who used to do TM in the distant past, but people who are currently active meditators are much more difficult to find.

Through use of an advertising targeting tool on Facebook, it's possible to measure the popularity of a number of topics related to Transcendental Meditation across age groups, and thus extrapolate from that sampling of Facebook users to the general population. This method suggests that only about 60,000 people in the United States have any current interest in these topics, which is a tiny fraction of the "one million meditators" that the TM movement claims currently live in the United States.

One possible means of estimating the number of meditators out there - or for that matter, estimating the number of people interested in any relatively esoteric subject - is provided by Facebook. As part of the tools provided to those arranging for advertising, an "estimated reach" can be calculated based on demographics, region, interests, or any combination. Using this tool, it's possible to obtain an approximation of how many people of each age group, who use Facebook, have expressed an interest in Transcendental Meditation or related topics. At the same time, the total number of Facebook users in each demographic can also be obtained, using the same tool without specifying interests. That ratio can then be extrapolated to the entire US population through the use of census data on the overall size of the same demographic brackets, thus providing some rough estimate of the size of the entire population of likely US meditators, and their distribution by age and sex.

Here's the end result of these calculations:

The number that jumps out at me is the 55+ number - fully one-third of people who've expressed an interest in TM are 55 years of age and older. This is the legacy of the boom in TM initiations during the early 1970's, among people who were in their 20's or older at the time.  A current age of 55 would correspond to a 1975 TM initiation at the age of eighteen.

Here is another view of these numbers, showing each demographic by its percentage of all US meditators.

While the marketing campaigns run by the David Lynch Foundation may attempt to make the case that TM is a popular practice in the United States, through their ongoing parade of celebrities and public figures, that sort of assertion is not in any way supported by these estimates. The penetration of Transcendental Meditation is so low, that I must refer to the proportion in units of one thousandth of one percent.

The largest single demographic group of likely meditators by penetration of the US market, those 55-64, is only three-hundredths of one percent of that age group in the United States - of that group, only one person in about 3,000. Overall, 0.025% of the US population meditates, or expresses an interest in Transcendental Meditation. That means that roughly 1 in 4,000 people, selected at random, across both genders and across all age groups, is a meditator, or is likely to express any interest in any topic related to Transcendental Meditation.

These numbers are based on a few very simple calculations based on the raw data from the census and the Facebook tool. One big factor that might affect how these numbers should be interpreted is the erosion of the Transcendental Meditation brand, as many people today use those two words generically for meditation unrelated to the trademarked, specific practice sold by Maharishi and his successors. Others may think "Maharishi" is a clothing brand. Conversely, the odds of any one meditator revealing the fact of their practice of TM in their Facebook profile are also unknown. These factors, and possibly more, complicate making a direct connection between Facebook "likes" of these topics and actual practice of Transcendental Meditation. But in any case, it is likely that the population of meditators in the United States is about one twentieth the size, or smaller, than that which is claimed by the TM movement.

The spreadsheets containing the raw Facebook and census numbers, and the calculated results, may be found here:

US Details

US Summary

These are the "precise interests" that were used to select the targets in the selected demographic of Facebook users when collecting the raw data. These terms are suggested by Facebook when entering words with obvious connections to Transcendental Meditation, including "maharishi" and "transcendental."

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