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What Can Google Search Data Tell Us About Human Behavior?


There's another way to look at the gap between how we portray ourselves online and who we really are. Author and data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has studied years' worth of Google search data, looking for insights into human behavior. He joins us now to talk about what Google knows and what social media may not. Welcome.

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Tell me what it is about the act of Googling that elicits perhaps the truest versions of ourselves.

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Well, I think one reason is people are online by themselves. All the data is anonymous. Their friends aren't seeing what they search on Google; they are seeing what they post on Facebook. Google also gives you an incentive to tell the truth to get the information you need, so you kind of have to tell Google what you're thinking if you want the results.

CHANG: Give an example of what you've found when you've been looking through Google search data.

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: My favorite example is I compared how people describe their husbands on social media and on Google when they're not telling anybody. The No. 1 way they complete the phrase, my husband is, on social media is my husband is the best. I wanted to see if that's an accurate view of marriage. I looked when people are by themselves and they're not showing off to their friends, what do they search about their husbands on Google?

CHANG: And...

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: And it's a totally different view of marriage. It's, my husband is a jerk, so annoying, mean, obnoxious, cheating on me.

CHANG: And you look at the specific post, my husband is dot, dot, dot.


CHANG: OK, so how are you getting this data from Google?

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The tool I use is Google Trends, and it says kind of where and when searches are more common.

CHANG: What about racism? When you're hunting through this Google data, do you have a very different portrait of how much of America would be self-identifying as racist than what people portray themselves like online?

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Sometimes you just find amusing things about people, but sometimes you do find disturbing facts about people. And one of the more disturbing things I found was the degree of racism in the United States. When I initially started doing the research, I was pretty shocked by how many people search for racist jokes, and most of that is for jokes mocking African-Americans. And it's searched in great frequency, as frequently as searches for, you know, Lakers or economist or migraine.

CHANG: You start at the premise that when people are Googling that they are mining for answers. They're revealing a truth about themselves. But I know that as a journalist, I conduct a lot of Google searches that have really nothing to do with my personal motivations. I mean, if I'm googling ISIS, it's because I may be writing a story about ISIS. It's not because I'm a terrorist. So do you account for that - that some Google searches are, quote, unquote, "innocent"?

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: You never know why a particular person makes a Google search. I certainly made a lot of racist searches doing the research for my book. I don't consider myself a racist person. But the data I used is anonymous and aggregated and tends to tell us about areas and time periods. And I think the lessons there are much clearer.

CHANG: What can we do with this data, I mean, besides being able to reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves?

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I'm actually working on an article now about suicide in the United States and what causes people to become suicidal. And you can actually see what people search for before they search for suicide. One of the most common diseases that triggers a suicidal search is herpes...

CHANG: Really?

STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: ...Which shocked me. And I think that to me is really kind of a profound insight into the human psyche. And it tends to be younger people and, you know, definitely should be incorporated in how doctors tell someone that they have herpes or how schools teach kids about these STDs to make sure that the stigma of this illness which is not life-threatening at all doesn't drive people to think of suicide.

CHANG: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of "Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, And What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.