How come Google knows all your darkest secrets?

Has this ever happened to you? To be walking on the street and be asked if you could spare a few minutes of your time to take part in a survey? Have you completed an online questionnaire as part of a research project? Did you lie?

Even if neither has happened to you, one thing is for sure, you have at some point in time googled something you were too embarrassed to ask any of the people close to you. Truth is something you practice more frequently when googling rather with your social life.

Harvard-educated data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz agrees that humans tend to lie quite frequently. We lie about our drinking habits, how often we go to the gym or the number of books we have read recently. And we do the same with surveys. No matter if we are alone in our room on our laptops or out in public with a kind stranger asking us the questions when we respond, we lie. That’s because of the social desirability bias. We want to look like we are doing the “right” thing. And even though the context of what is “right” and what is not maybe have shifted through the decades, people would always hide the truth.

When it comes to google searches though, thing change. Then it’s just us, alone on the world-wide web and no one is asking us anything. We pose the questions and through them we express our darkest, most embarrassing thoughts and worries concerning our desires, prejudices and beliefs. We project our “raw” identities, in their most unrefined and possibly frightening state.

That is exactly what dr. Stephens-Davidowitz realized and decided to analyze anonymous Google search results of US locals and compare them with conventional surveys of years past. His findings were published in the book “Everybody Lies: What the Internet can tell us about who we really are”.

The most troubling out of the results are about race and stereotypes. Among the most frequent Google searches are the questions “Why are black people rude?” and “Why are Jews, evil?”. Shocking is the fact that prejudice skyrocketed amongst Americans when former president Barrack Obama was giving a public speech after the mass-shooting that took place on December 2015 in San Bernardino, California. He wanted to calm the citizens’ worry instead what happened was that people were typing extremely racist remarks like “kill Muslims” with the same frequency as “martini recipe” and “migraine symptoms”. That could possibly explain the electoral victory of conservative president Donald Trump or the Brexit vote when so many people denied voting for them.

Though, the list of paradoxes doesn’t end here. The findings prove that there are many gay men who suppress their sexual identities, living in the more conservative states of the US like Carolina and Louisiana. A fact confirmed by the same research by dr. Stephens-Davidowitz who has found that women at those states are 10% more likely to complete the question “Is my husband…?” with the word gay than the word cheating.

Just as sad is the fact that parents wander if their daughters are overweight twice more frequently than if their sons are. Which is an oxymoron since the percentage of childhood obesity in America is 35% for the boys and 28% for the girls.

Some other findings are light and amusing. For example, the fact that men make so many Google search about their penis that the number is higher than the number of questions they ask about their lungs, liver, ears, nose, neck and brain combined.

No matter the importance of the issue we seem to trust Google so much that it knows us better than we know ourselves. Can we handle our truth?



by Thanos Arabatzis