Our Searches, Ourselves

Perhaps the aphorism should be changed to “In Google, veritas.” Where do people go with their most intimate worries, thoughts, and fears? Not the nearest water cooler or humblebrag app. More likely, they’ll seek comfort in the relative privacy of a search box.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, used his data-analysis skills to learn what was really on Americans’ minds. The result, a new book called Everybody Lies, shows how the terms and questions people type into search engines don’t at all match what they claim on surveys.

“So for example,” he told me recently, “there have historically been more searches for porn than for weather.” But just 25 percent of men and 8 percent of women will admit to survey researchers that they watch porn.

In addition to Google, some of his research comes from tape-recorder (rather than self-report) studies, which can provide a similar truth-serum effect.

I recently spoke with Stephens-Davidowitz about some of the most surprising findings from his book, which spans data on gender norms, prejudice, and romance. We focused on the search data about sex and relationships, because who are we kidding. An edited version of our conversation follows:


Olga Khazan: Speaking of porn, I was wondering if you could talk about pornography featuring violence against women. What’s surprising about who looks for that, and what might that tell us?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: It’s a big theme of pornography, but I think the somewhat surprising thing is that it’s far more popular among women than men. It’s one of the most popular genres of pornography for women. Just about every search that is looking for violent porn is roughly twice as common among women than men.

Of course the danger is that somehow people will hear this and they’ll think that somehow this makes rape a less horrific crime, which it doesn’t. It’s just a fantasy, of course it doesn’t mean that they want that in real life.

Khazan: To me that suggested that there’s a really big distinction between fantasy life and real life, as far as people’s sexual desires.

Stephens-Davidowitz: Well it’s kind of similar also to horror movies, which are also [popular] among women. I don’t think women want to be kidnapped in real life, but many women enjoy watching movies featuring kidnappings.

Women also search for a lot of lesbian porn, even women who do not consider themselves lesbians.

Khazan: So let’s say you stop watching porn and actually go on a date with someone. How can a man tell if a woman is interested in him, and vice-versa?

Stephens-Davidowitz: This is a study where researchers gave tape recorders to men and women, heterosexual men and women, who are on speed dates. Then they measured whether the men and women wanted to go on a second date. Then they said: What words do men and women use on first dates that suggest that they want to go on a second date, or that can improve the chances that a partner wants to go on a second date?

For the women, a woman frequently signals interest by talking about herself using the word “I” a lot. A man signals interest by talking in a deep monotone voice. A woman signals disinterest by using hedge words, such as “sort of,” “kind of,” or “probably.” A man can increase the odds of a woman wanting a second date by laughing at her jokes or showing support, such as saying “that must have been difficult” or “that sounds tough.”

Of course that’s not rocket science, but I think a lot of men probably still need to read it. A woman can increase the odds of a man wanting a second date by talking about herself a lot, by using the word “I.” That kind of goes against conventional wisdom. I think a lot of women think that they shouldn’t talk too much about themselves. But, men seem to like when a woman opens up on a first date.

Khazan: Alright, and once they’ve been dating a while … what’s the number one search complaint about boyfriends?

Stephens-Davidowitz: That my boyfriend won’t have sex with me.

Khazan: You said that’s more common than “my girlfriend won’t have sex with me,” right?

Stephens-Davidowitz: Yeah, it’s about twice as common. That doesn’t mean that twice as many boyfriends are refusing sex, relative to girlfriends. It may be that when a boyfriend doesn’t want sex, women are more likely to turn to Google, because it’s more surprising. Because men in popular culture are supposed to want sex all the time. But, I think this data does show that men avoiding sex is probably more common than is traditionally thought.

Khazan: Why are they so reluctant to have sex? What are men’s biggest insecurities about their bodies?

Stephens-Davidowitz: Men tend to be insecure about the size of their penises. It definitely wasn’t too surprising. It was surprising the degree of it. I estimate that men ask more questions about their penis than any other body part. Men’s top concern about the aging process is not their blood pressure, cholesterol, or potential memory problems. It’s whether their penis is getting smaller.

Women don’t usually search about their partner’s penis. When they do, they’re about as likely to complain that it’s too big and hurts as that it’s too small.

Khazan: Do men start worrying about actual health issues as they get older, or is that pretty consistent?

Stephens-Davidowitz: We don’t know exactly. You don’t know the age of a searcher for sure.

Khazan: Okay, what about women? What are they concerned about?

Stephens-Davidowitz: I think the main insecurity, and this did surprise me, I didn’t know about it at all, was vaginal odor. That takes up a good percentage of women’s questions about their genitals. I think there’s a lot of value in knowing this information because this isn’t really talked about in most sex ed classes, but there clearly is a fairly widespread paranoia among many women, particularly younger women, around odors.

So it clearly is something that should be talked about. What’s normal and what’s maybe a cause for concern? It’s a big issue that we didn’t know about, because it’s a little hush hush because it’s embarrassing to a lot of people. But because people tell Google everything, now we know how widespread this insecurity is.

Khazan: And do men search for, “I don’t like the way my girlfriend’s vagina smells”?

Stephens-Davidowitz: Yeah, they do. This is kind of humorous, they’re concerned that it smells like condoms or another man’s semen. Because [that, in their minds, means] she may be cheating on them.

Khazan: Despite all this insecurity and worries about smells, how often do people actually have sex? What’s the disparity between how much they say they have sex and how much they actually do?

Stephens-Davidowitz: They have a lot less sex than they say they do. The way I studied this is I looked at condom data. The General Social Survey asks people how frequently they have sex, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual sex, and whether they use a condom. You do the math. Heterosexual women say they use 1.1 billion condoms every year in heterosexual sex. Men say they use 1.6 billion condoms in heterosexual sex, but you know that someone’s lying. So who’s lying?

Only 600 million condoms are sold every year in the United States. Some of them [are used by] gay men and some of them thrown out. They’re exaggerating how frequently they use a condom. This doesn’t mean that they are lying about how frequently they have sex. They may just be lying about how frequently they use protection when they do have sex, but if you look at how frequently American women of fertility age say they have sex without using any contraception, if they really were having that much unprotected sex, there would be more pregnancies every year in the United States. I think everybody in surveys exaggerates how frequently they have sex, because in today’s culture there is a lot of pressure to have a lot of sex and to not admit if you’re having not that much sex. For both men and women, there is a pressure to exaggerate.

Khazan: Another thing that I thought was interesting was that “Is my husband gay?” is a more popular search term than “Is my husband cheating?” Why is that?

Stephens-Davidowitz: “Is my husband gay?” is most common in states where it’s hard to be gay, states like South Carolina and Mississippi and Tennessee. I think some of the husbands are gay in those states. Also, the percentage of porn searches that are for gay porn is much higher in these states than the percentage of men who say they’re gay.

So I think it is true that in [places like] Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, there is a risk of men being gay. That said, I think that women are probably a little too concerned that their husband may be gay. I think there are 10 times more searches for “Is my husband gay?” than “Is my husband depressed?” But, there are a lot more depressed men married to women than gay men married to women.

I think it goes back to how there’s not that much sex happening in the United States and there are a lot of sexless marriages. It may be that many women in a sexless marriage, their first thought is, “Oh he must be gay.” Which probably isn’t usually the case. There are lots of other reasons a man might not want to have sex.

Khazan: It’s a little conceited of us. “Oh, he must be gay.”

Stephens-Davidowitz: Yeah, well, I probably do the same thing. Anytime a woman rejects me, I’m just like, “She’s a lesbian.” Which is not really true probably, but I think it’s a little bit of a defense mechanism.

It’s kind of a weird contrast. On the one hand you see this enormous insecurity online—an almost needless insecurity. But then you have the “Is my husband gay?” as soon as he doesn’t want sex. Which is a defense mechanism.

Khazan: Did you have any takeaways or big insights about Americans’ personal lives that struck you when you were done researching this?

Stephens-Davidowitz: I think there’s two. One is depressing and kind of horrifying. The book is called Everybody Lies, and I start the book with racism and how people were saying to surveys that they didn’t care that Barack Obama was black. But at the same time they were making horrible racist searches, and very clearly the data shows that many Americans were not voting for Obama precisely because he was black.

I started the book with that, because that is the ultimate lie. You might be saying that you don’t care that [someone is black or a woman], but that really is driving your behavior. People can say one thing and do something totally different. You see the darkness that is often hidden from polite society. That made me feel kind of worse about the world a little bit. It was a little bit frightening and horrifying.

But, I think the second thing that you see is a widespread insecurity, and that made me feel a little bit better. I think people put on a front, whether it’s to friends or on social media, of having things together and being sure of themselves and confident and polished. But we’re all anxious. We’re all neurotic.

That made me feel less alone, and it also made me more compassionate to people. I now assume that people are going through some sort of struggle, even if you wouldn’t know that from their Facebook posts.

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