A recent Freakonomics podcast featured author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and insights from his research and recent book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.
In a nutshell, humans are most truly themselves when they’re searching on Google than they’ll ever be in taking a survey. Surveys are plagued by “social desirability bias” — where respondents tend to say what they feel will be considered by others to more favorable, rather than what they really think or feel. (This also may help explain last year’s unexpected presidential election results vs. the polling.)
Some of Seth’s examples are not pretty. They uncover some very unpleasant trends involving racism, Islamophobia, and other sensitive topics.
He has shown correlations between derogatory searches with the n-word following former President Obama’s speeches, or even the news coverage years earlier on Hurricane Katrina — where African American flood victims were featured prominently. Seth notes an interesting geographic trend, too. These types of racist searches were just as prevalent in northern states as in southern ones — but it dropped off significantly west of the Mississippi.
Similarly, searches on anti-Muslim terms really spike following terror attacks. But who would’ve thought that they’d also spike right after the president’s televised address specifically promoting our acceptance of Muslim Americans and discouraging knee-jerk reactions.
On a positive note: When Obama’s speeches would go further to mention that Muslims are are prominent among American sports heroes and in the armed forces risking their life for America, anti-Muslim searches actually dropped. They were replaced by searches like “Muslim servicemen” and “Muslim American athletes.” In addition to the podcast, here’s a 2015 article from The New York Times on the topic.
What can we marketers learn from this?
For one, we can defuse volatile emotions by piquing people’s curiosity.
To all of us in market research and data science, this comes as no surprise. Since Google has been making its data available for research, we continue to learn more about some of these harsh realities of human behavior. But while this uncovers some unsavory facts, it’s far better that we are aware of them. After all, we need to truly know the problems before we can begin to solve them.
Here is a link to the Freakonomics podcast where Stephen Dubner interviews Seth Stephens-Davidowitz on this topic.