What Google autocomplete tells us about humanity

If you want to find out what people are interested in, one of the worst ways to do that is to ask them. Why? Because humans respond to incentives and there is very little incentive to tell your interviewer the truth.

We humans are biased by what we think the questioner wants to hear, but what we are willing to admit, or the self-image we want to portray. For example, few people would admit to voting for UKIP or liking Justin Bieber. And we all exercise far more, eat junk food far less, and enjoy a lot more sex than reality would agree with.

Reported vs observed data

This is a major problem in psychology.

However, there is a way around it. We just have to look at times when people are incentivised to tell the truth.

There is a whole book about this for online dating. In Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), OkCupid founder Christian Rudder points out that although people say they are not racist when it comes to rating people of a different race as equally attractive, our self-reported beliefs come unstuck.

Another example is Google Search. People are searching for the information they want, so they are unlikely to hide it. Google then anoymises this data and makes it available via autocomplete. You start by putting in “President Donald” and Google, having noticed that everyone else is searching for “President Donald Trump”. offers to complete the search term for you.

Which means you can also work backwards. If you put in the first half of a question, Google will give you the most popular options for the rest.

Should I…

Pop culture wins out here. Most people are looking for the famous song by The Clash. Once we get pasted that we move to people struggling with relationships and dating, and finally onto the big questions i life, such as switching careers or hair styles.

Visiting the doctors

If we add “go to the doctor” onto the end of that, people are worrying about two things: colds and mental health. Colds and flu makes sense: it is the most common thing to get, so there are lots of people worrying about it. Anal bleeding, for example, is less ambiguous about a doctor’s visit being required (it is) and not many people get it. Bad flu, on the other hand, occurs a lot.

Mental health is something that comes up a lot, too.

What should I do if…

Here people are worrying about health and dogs. Getting pregnant is the big question, then two entires on dogs and mental health crops up again.

How long until…

This is all about the holidays: people are already counting down the days until Christmas. Of course, if they had a tracker app like I do, they would already know it is 175. No mention of Jesus coming back, which I was surprised about. How long until I get home: I am not sure if this is some kind of Google maps query; I imagine it is as Google offers that functionality.

Is it true that…

This one is just bizarre. Is cats and cucumbers really the most fact-checked question on the internet? Good to see people are doing their research, though.

Films about…

Mental health and dogs both make a re-appearance here. What is even more interesting is if you go into privacy mode and look at the top ten…

Here mental health dominates, taking spots one and three. People are also interested in drugs, dogs, aliens, 9/11, and somewhere down the bottom is love, space and religion.

Films about self…

Taking the search a step further and adding the word “self”, the topic of self harm comes up a lot. People are interested in self-esteem and self-love, but no self-improvement on the list.

Conclusion

People are frequently concerned with their mental health and the health of their dogs. Everything else can go hang. And they’re really not sure whether 9/11 was an inside job or not.

What we can learn from this? Nothing. It’s a couple of data points pulled out in a non-scientific way. But at least now you know that it is only 175 days until Christmas.

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 3rd, 2017 at 11:00 am and is filed under Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.