AUSSIES have a reputation for being chilled-out, laid-back and easygoing but our Google searches tell a different story.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Google data scientist who has analysed people’s internet searches and has written the book Everybody Lies about what the data reveals.
“People tend to lie in everyday life, in social media and for surveys but they tell things to Google about what they’re really thinking,” Stephens-Davidowitz told news.com.au.
In Sydney for two talks as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas this weekend, the New York Times op-ed contributor and visiting lecturer at The Wharton School, said since arriving in the country he’d had many people comment about how laid back Aussies were — especially compared to Americans.
“Actually Australians make more searches, looking for help with anxiety, than anyone else in the world,” Stephens-Davidowitz, who has been analysing data since 2004, said.
“You don’t always express openly anxiety but you do confess this anxiety to Google.”
This wasn’t a recent phenomenon in Australia either, he said, in fact it’s a trend he’s noticed for a long time. In general, Stephens-Davidowitz believes people are more anxious and insecure than they let on, and they often lie.
“If you ask people, ‘Are you racist?’, just about no one says yes,” he said.
But one of the things that shocked him when he started looking into the Google data, were how many people were searching for racist jokes mocking African-Americans. The data could perhaps help explain for example, the popularity of Donald Trump.
“It’s an unprecedented window into the human psyche,” Stephens-Davidowitz said.
On Google, people’s “nasty thoughts”, their sexual preferences and other secret desires are revealed.
While this data could be used to manipulate people, Stephens-Davidowitz also believes it could be used to help people.
For example, symptoms that people search for on Google could be used to predict conditions like pancreatic cancer and provide a chance for health professionals to intervene earlier.
“(Google) is a window into human thoughts, even some of the darker, even suicidal thoughts or if they are struggling with mental issues like depression or anxiety,” Stephens-Davidowitz said.
“People do confess secrets to Google and we can use this to help people when life isn’t going well. It’s better using honest data than dishonest data.”
While some may worry about the privacy implications, Stephens-Davidowitz believes the bigger companies were protecting their users.
“Google has some of the best computer scientists protecting its data but I think users should be more concerned if they are using smaller sites rather than the big sites,” he said.
One high profile breach occurred in 2015 when Ashley Madison, the dating website that connects married people with others who want to cheat on their partners, had details of its members leaked.
Stephens-Davidowitz said smaller sites like these didn’t devote as many resources into protecting people’s privacy.
But in general he didn’t believe privacy was over.
“I still think privacy is an important value and we should fight for it,” he said.
And while he wrote a book exposing the lies people are telling, Stephens-Davidowitz doesn’t think every lie is bad.
“I don’t think we would be a better society if everyone knew what we were thinking,” he said.
“Sometimes we lie to protect people’s feelings — I think that’s largely a good thing but sometimes we lie to make ourselves look good and this sparks envy and insecurity in others about their lives.”