Melissa Brown

Melissa Brown

If you’ve ever wondered what people search for in Google, when no one is looking, below are some examples:

Parents are twice as likely to Google, “Is my daughter overweight?” than, “Is my son overweight?” and twice as likely to search how to get their daughters to lose weight. Parents are also 2.5 times more likely to search, “Is my son gifted?” than, “Is my daughter gifted?”

After the 2008 election, about one in every hundred Google searches with the word “Obama” included the “n-word” or “KKK.”

It’s not uncommon for wives to ask Google, “Is my husband gay?” Women are 10% more likely to make this search than, “Is my husband cheating?” It’s Googled eight times more often than “an alcoholic” and 10 times more than “depressed.”

Mississippi, a state with only one abortion clinic, has the highest rate of searches for self-induced abortions.

Men Google more questions about their sexual organ than they do about their lungs, liver, feet, ears, nose, throat and brain combined.

These are just a few of the findings Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, data scientist and New York Times columnist, found while doing research for his book “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.” He analyzed information left by millions of people on the internet and shows how big data has revolutionized how we study behavioral economics and psychology. He writes, “Big data allows us to finally see what people really want and really do, not what they say they want and say they do.”

Research was once limited to surveys, opinion polls and observing test subjects. Today, one can compile information from thousands of anonymous users. One huge up-side to using this method is that Google searches are like a digital truth serum.

When no one is watching, people are more honest than they are in polls or anonymous surveys. According to the University of Maryland’s official records, 11% of their students graduated with a 2.5 GPA or lower. When graduates were surveyed, only 2.5% admitted their GPA was 2.5 or below. In addition, 44% said they had donated to the university, but only 28% actually did.

Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “Many people underreport embarrassing behaviors and thoughts on surveys. They want to look good, even though most surveys are anonymous. This is called social desirability bias.” Ninety percent of college professors say their work is above average. Twenty-five percent of high school seniors think they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with other people.

Big data also allows businesses to determine what customers really want versus what they claim. When Facebook introduced the “News Feed” feature in 2006, users reported that they hated it. They said it was intrusive and they were not interested in knowing every detail about their friends’ activities. Mark Zuckerberg kept it because the data showed that users spent far more time on Facebook because of News Feed. Users did, in fact, want to know every detail about their friends.

Streaming services like Netflix have also caught on. In the past, they asked customers what they’d like to watch. Users would then fill their queues with documentaries and serious films they never viewed. When Netflix started making recommendations based on movies similar to those customers had previously watched, users spent much more time on their site. Xavier Amatriain, a former Netflix data scientist, stated, “The algorithms know you better than you know yourself.”

Analysis of the data also reveals trends and insights that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Stephens-Davidowitz discovered the following:

The person less likely than the average to repay a debt is a “polite, openly religious person who gives his word.”

If your parents are poor and you live in Canada, you have a 13.5% chance of becoming rich. If you live in the United States, your chances drop to 7.5%. When broken down by cities, some places in the states rank better than others. In San Jose, California, a poor American has a 12.9% chance of getting rich. In Charlotte, North Carolina, chances drop to 4.4%.

In Mexico, the top searches about “my pregnant wife” include, “Frases de amor para mi esposa embarazada,” (words of love to my pregnant wife) and, “Poemas para mi esposa embarazada” (poems for my pregnant wife). In the United States, the top searches include, “My wife is pregnant now what?” and, “My wife is pregnant what do I do?”

The author also discusses the glaring divide between how people portray themselves on social media and their real lives. He writes, “Facebook is digital brag-to-my-friends-about-how-good-my-life-is serum. In Facebook world, the average adult seems to be happily married, vacationing in the Caribbean, and reading the Atlantic. In the real world, a lot of people are angry, on supermarket checkout lines, peeking at the National Enquirer, ignoring the phone calls from their spouse, whom they haven’t slept with in years. In Facebook world, it seems every young adult is at a cool party Saturday night. In the real world, most are home alone, binge-watching shows on Netflix.” 

Stephens-Davidowitz analyzes big data to uncover some disturbing truths about our beliefs, prejudices, and tendency to hide the truth. Besides offering some fascinating insights, he uses data to show us the problems we face so we can go about fixing them. 

Melissa Brown is a web developer at SimpleDzn.com and former business professor at the University of Alaska. She can be reached at melissa@simpledzn.com. This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Department of Applied Business.