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RS 191 - Seth Stephens-Davidowitz on "What the internet can tell us about human nature"

Release date: August 20th, 2017

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There are a lot of sensitive topics about human nature that would be interesting to study, such as people's sexual behavior, or how racist people really are. Researchers studying those questions have always faced the problem that we tend to lie on surveys -- but we don't lie to Google. This episode features Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, economist and data scientist, and author of the book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. Seth and Julia discuss the insights new research gives us into which parts of the USA are more racist, what kinds of strategies reduce racism, whether the internet is making political polarization worse, and the sexual fetishes and insecurities people will only admit to their search engine.

Seth's Pick: "The Better Angels of our Nature" by Steven Pinker

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

 Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (18)

"After the San Bernardino attack... the top search with the word 'Muslim' was 'Kill Muslims.'"

What, you think all these Californians were searching how to kill Muslims, or hate-searching? Or could it be that they heard news about Muslims killing people, and googled "kill" and "Muslims" to find out what happened. I bet the actual search query didn't have quotes around the two words, so it gave the same result as "Muslims kill" without the quotes.
And you're surprised that a speech about a Muslim terrorist attack increased searches about Muslim terrorism?

What a joke.
August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Davidowitz found "the degree to which people are self-absorbed is pretty shocking" because, "When people were waking up at 3am in a cold sweat, their searches were about their job, their health, their relationship – they’re not concerned about the Muslim ban or global warming."

How dare they worry more about their job, health, and children than about Somalis or polar bears. Shocking self-absorption.
August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Another gem from the article

"This measure of pornography searches by men – roughly 5% are same-sex – seems a reasonable estimate of the true size of the gay population in the United States."

Assuming that gay men search for porn at the same rate as straight men, but what if gay men search for porn at a higher rate? If 82% of men diagnosed with HIV are gay, does that mean that 82% of men are gay?

This guy has a PhD in economics from Harvard?
August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Searches like "i am depressed", or "i regret having children", make sense if the searcher is looking for testimonials, discussions of first person accounts, etc. People may prefer to read personal conversations rather than studies found by searches like "do people regret having children". Strange that this does occur to someone whos spent so much time researching search patterns.
August 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTheantichamber
Julia said herself that she searched for phrases like "I regret having children" to find "examples of other people who had made the choice about whether or not to have children, and were talking about whether they regretted it."
But Seth responds that people don't ask, "Will I regret having children," and then repeats, "But they do say afterwards that they regret having children," ignoring what Julia just told him.
And he's surprised that people don't ask Google questions like, "Will I regret having children." That's one extra word in the query, and if you google it with quotation marks, you get five results, compared with over 10,000 results for "I regret having children" including a Facebook group by that name.
August 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
And yes, Julia, people use Yahoo News, many of them conservatives who post comments complaining about Yahoo's liberal bias, which means that they're not in a filter bubble. What do you use, Reddit?
August 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
I think it's fascinating that Seth couldn't come up with why people search for "I regret having children" so often. He even seemed certain that these searches must be confessions to Google rather than searches about others' experiences.

To me, there's a very plausible rationale for those types of searches, and it's far more convincing that the idea of Google as a confessional. The reason is pretty simple, too, and that is that people don't trust search engines with the job of interpretation.

In the past, searching for exact (or semi-exact) phrases has been the most effective way of finding things. For much of its history, search has not been semantic – semantic search is a huge challenge – and the best search results happened when you searched for the phrase you hoped to find. So if you wanted to read people's experiences with losing weight, you might google "lost weight" or "I lost weight", because that phrase would be indexed directly. If you searched for "how to lose weight" in the early days, you would only find what you were looking for if that phrase was in the title or article.

Search has of course improved over the last decade, but I don't know that behavior has completely changed. Instead, I'd hypothesize that people still search this way because 1) not everyone has changed their search habits over time, 2) exact searches may still be more effective than semantic searches, or 3) people perceive exact searches to be more effective than semantic searches.

In general, I enjoyed this episode but thought the reasoning and methodology had more unexplored holes than I usually hear on RS.
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