Do Your Google Searches Reveal the Real You?

We tell Google things we wouldn't tell our loved ones, or even our own doctors.

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: So, the past 80 years if you want to know what people want, why they do the things they do, what they’re going to do, you ask them in a survey. But people may lie to surveys. But it’s been shown that people are really, really honest on certain internet sources, particularly their Google searches, so they tell Google things they might not tell to anybody else. They might not tell family members, friends, surveys, even themselves sometimes. And by mining this data we can get better insights into who we are.
All the data I analyze is anonymous and aggregate, but you can see patterns in this. So, for example, before an election if you ask people in a survey, “Are you going to vote,” pretty much everybody says yes, or a huge percentage of people say yes, even if they have absolutely no intention to vote just because it makes them feel good to tell a survey that they’re voting.
But you can actually see—based on where searches for how to vote or where to vote are highest—how high turnout really will be in different parts of the country. And that’s a very accurate predictor of who is actually going to vote.
When I started this research I measured how frequently people made racist searches in the United States. And the searches I looked at were very, very strikingly racist searches looking for basically jokes mocking African Americans. And I was struck by how frequently people are making these searches. In the time period I was looking at, it was as frequent as searches for “Lakers” and “migraine” and “Daily Show” — so not a fringe search. And I was also shocked by where these searches were located. If you had asked me, 'Where’s racism highest in the United States?' before I saw this Google data I would have said the South.
If you think of our country’s history, of slavery, the Civil War, we usually think of racism as a Southern issue. But the places with the highest racist search volumes included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York, industrial Michigan.
The real divide in racism these days is not north versus south. It’s east versus west, where you get a lot less of this west of the Mississippi River as compared to east of the Mississippi River.
And then if you remember the 2008 election, all the way back then when Barack Obama was elected president, after the election there was this question: did people care that he was black? And Gallup asked people and some other surveys asked people and 98 percent, 99 percent of Americans said “No, no, no, no—of course not. This was not a factor in our voting decision.”
But you actually see very, very clearly in the data that Obama did far worse than other previous Democratic candidates in places with higher racist search volumes. And this isn’t explained by anything else in the data. It’s not explained by demographics or gun ownership or church attendance or liberalism. The main factor that predicts where Obama did worse than other Democrats is how frequently they made racist searches on Google.
Anyway, this data kind of languished I think on my website for a while, but then during the 2016 Republican Primary some data journalists got data on where Trump was doing best in the Republican Primary. Trump, of course, was saying some very, very racially charged things and people were expecting that these were gaffes, that he would collapse because he was saying things that you are not supposed to say, you know: retweeting false statistics about how frequently African Americans commit crimes, or not repudiating support from a former leader of the KKK, saying that Black Lives Matter protestors should be roughed up. And then what these data journalists found is, the single highest predictor of where Trump was doing well was the measure of racist searches on Google. So the same hidden racism that was secretly hurting Obama was waiting for a candidate to support and helped Trump tremendously in the Republican Primary.
So in the 2016 election one thing that was very, very clear in the data is that African American turnout was going to be way down. Because if you looked at cities with 90 percent black populations or 95 percent black populations, searches for information on voting were way lower than the previous two elections. So this was a clue that Trump may do better than expected because Clinton wasn’t going to get the same black support that Obama had gotten. And I think as far as predicting the elections just based on searches, we’re not really there yet because we haven’t had enough elections to test the models on. We’ve only had a few elections to build the models, whereas polls have been building models over many, many elections. I think there definitely are clues in searches for which way people will go. They’re a little more subtle than we usually think. So, for example, you can’t predict which way a state is going to go based on how frequently they search for a candidate. It’s not like places that search for Trump more go for Trump and places that search for Clinton more go for Clinton. The problem, and you can probably guess it’s obvious, is that you might search Trump because you love him or you might search Trump because you hate him.
So it doesn’t really tell us too much. There are some subtle indicators that seem to have predictive powers. One that I’ve found is the order in which people search candidates. About 26 percent of searches for Clinton in the previous election cycle also included the word Trump. So people searched for Clinton Trump polls or Trump Clinton debate. And it turns out, interestingly there’s a subtle clue in which way people will go based on the order in which they list the candidates in their search. So if people search Trump Clinton polls they’re much more likely to go Trump. If people search Clinton Trump polls they’re much more likely to go Clinton.
But it’s going to take a lot of elections to kind of build these models and weight these models and figure out exactly how to translate the searches to vote totals. But I think there is some information in these searches for the purposes of predicting elections.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has a sneaking suspicion that everybody lies. Instead, we seem to be far more honest with a website than with each other. The things that people type into the Google search bar, Stephens-Davidowitz says, reveal far more about a person than any in-depth interviewer could ever dream of. Even how racist someone can be. What's alarming is that prior to the 2008 election, Stephens-Davidowitz saw a big uptick in racist searches coming from alarming places. He had expected the South to make perhaps a portion of these searches, but he was shocked to see the searches coming from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and more. And to cap that off, most of those searches were hardly fringe searches: they matched the amount of bigger-name searches like Lakers, migraines, and The Daily Show.


Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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