"To be honest as this world goes is to be one man picked out of ten thousand." - From Hamlet by William Shakespeare
It can be difficult or even impossible to know what people, deep down, are really thinking.
Sometimes it's not that difficult - most people know that public figures usually don't tell it straight up. There is often a bottom line, perhaps the protection of a reputation, or maybe the desire to maintain an image. Most people are aware that public figures rarely disclose the truth in full; they tend to speak in vague sentences, half-truths, and occasionally outright lies.
More people trust what their family and friends tell them. Generally, friends and family do not go out of their way to deceive, yet they may omit relevant points in the interests of sparing a person's feelings or protecting them in some other way. It is harder to spot the half-truths and lies expressed by family and friends. However, if one looks hard enough, they sometimes pop up.
Still more people trust what they tell themselves - the voice in their head, the talking monologue, the inner commentary observing and passing judgement on the torrent of events that occur throughout one's life. It can be extremely difficult indeed to unearth the half-truths and lies perpetrated by that seductive inner voice known as the ego. Yet with enough reflection, even these can be spotted.
Of course, there are exceptions - the public figure with no selfish motives, the family member or friend willing to call a spade a spade regardless of the consequences (young children are often good at this), the enlightened individual who has abandoned their ego. Yet these are the exceptions. In general, each of the above sources will, at some point and to varying degrees, be dishonest.
Is there a source that can be wholly trusted never to be dishonest?
Perhaps. Yet the answer may surprise you.
The Power Of Google
In his book Everybody Lies, author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz believes there is one such source, and that is the search engine Google (1). In fact, he goes so far as to say that Google searches are "the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche."
Stephens-Davidowitz has spent countless hours analyzing the Google search patterns of people in dozens of countries, effectively allowing him to interpret search patterns from millions of people around the world - these are huge numbers. The ability to record what millions of people type into their computer may be dubious from an ethical standpoint, but it is undeniably - from a certain point of view - extremely powerful.
The most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche?
Yet the power of analyzing Google searches goes far beyond the impressive numbers. The real power of analyzing Google searches is that they provide an honest source of information. People, often in private, will pour what is really on their mind, or in their hearts, into the Google search bar - things they would not admit to a stranger, habits they could never discuss with a family member or friend, interests the ego dare not not allow them to reveal.
Put simply, the power of analyzing Google searches is not in the huge numbers - it's in the honesty of the data.
By analyzing Google searches, Stephens-Davidowitz has challenged numerous perceptions such as the following:
- In the United States, conventional surveys constantly place modern racism predominantly in the South, and mostly amongst Republicans. However, when analyzing racist searches (words I will not mention here) on Google, the states with the highest racist search rates include New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The true divide, according to Google search data, is not South versus North - it is East versus West.
- One of the major problems cited by married couples is that they have an unhappy or loveless marriage. However, searches for "sexless marriage" are three and a half times more common than "unhappy marriage" and eight times more common than "loveless marriage." According to Google search data, a lack of sex during marriage is a much greater issue than unhappy or loveless marriages.
Stephens-Davidowitz challenges many more perceptions - how men in different countries really react to the news that their wife is pregnant, the influence of socio-economic status on the naming of children, and whether "Freudian slips" in language actually do reveal our subconscious thoughts.
To some people, the honest information gleaned from analyzing countless Google searches will be surprising, shocking, disheartening, even threatening.
Yet if it is, know that the truth only hurts in a transient sort of way, and the truly free person is the one with nothing to hide from others, or themselves.
References (1) Stephens-Davidowitz, S. 2017. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. Harper Collins.