How Big is My Penis? (And Other Things We Ask Google) (Ep. 286)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How Big is My Penis? (And Other Things We Ask Google).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
On the Internet, people say all kinds of things they’d never say aloud — about sex and race, about their true wants and fears. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has spent years parsing the data. His conclusion: our online searches are the reflection of our true selves. In the real world, everybody lies.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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Stephen J. DUBNER: Here’s a question: how many men are gay?
Seth STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: About 5 percent.
DUBNER: Does advertising work?
DUBNER: Why was American Pharoah a great racehorse?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Big left ventricle.
DUBNER: Is the media biased?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Yeah, it gives you what you want to read.
DUBNER: Are Freudian slips real?
DUBNER: Who cheats on their taxes?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Everybody who knows how to cheat.
[MUSIC: Justin Marcellus, “In My Eyes (Synths Mix)”]
Who is this person and how does he know these things? That’s what you’ll find out on this episode of Freakonomics Radio — that, and a lot of other things. Some of which are pretty disturbing. For instance: how certain events can produce a surge in Google searches for a particular racial epithet:
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: There was a big increase in searches when Obama was elected.
It turns out that Google search data can tell us a lot about ourselves that we may not even tell ourselves.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: People are in such a habit of lying in their day-to-day life, people lie to their partners or their kids or their parents.
And: when you drill down into this ruthlessly honest database, you’re bound to be surprised.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The top search that starts [with] “my husband wants” in India is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.”
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[MUSIC: Flares, “Breathing Fire” (from Dimensions Divide Us)]
There’ve been quite a few prominent terrorist attacks in recent years …
Paul Adams in a clip from BBC News: Berlin, early this morning [EDIT] a weapon of mass murder is slowly removed.
Franck GENAUZEAU in a clip from France 2’s 20 Heures: Le journaliste… de Charlie Hebdo…
Sadiq KHAN in a clip on Twitter: Today, London suffered a horrific attack near Parliament Square.
Most of these attacks have one thing in common …
Afterward, politicians tend to encourage unity …
KHAN in a clip on Twitter: London is the greatest city in the world, and we stand together in the face of those who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life.
And they encourage us to not equate Islamist terrorism with Islam:
MAY in on the floor of the House of Commons: The attacks have nothing to do with Islam, which is followed peacefully by millions of people around the world
How effective is this sort of encouragement?
Seth STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: All right, do you want to tell me if I’m talking too long?
That’s Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I’m an economist, data scientist, and an author.
And he’s studied the effectiveness of this kind of political speech. This speech, for instance.
President Barack H. OBAMA in a clip from the White House: Good evening.
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The speech was, I thought, beautiful and moving.
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim-Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: He talked about how important religious tolerance has been to America, and how everyone has a responsibility to not give into fear, but appeal to freedom. Everybody has a responsibility to not judge people based on their religion and not give religious tests when deciding who enters this country.
Shortly after the San Bernardino attack, Stephens-Davidowitz and a colleague, Evan Soltas, published a piece in The New York Times called “The Rise of Hate Search.” The primary evidence came from Google search data.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: … searches like “kill Muslims” and “I hate Muslims” and “Muslims are evil.” Really nasty searches.
They looked at the frequency of that kind of search before, during, and after Obama’s speech.
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: We were founded upon a belief in human dignity…
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: It was a very well-received speech.
So: did the speech curtail anti-Muslim Google searches?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: We found that all the searches during the speech actually went up
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Where he was saying that it was our responsibility to reject fear and that it is our responsibility not to judge people based on religion.
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: We have always met challenges — whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks — by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: But searches against Syrian refugees were going up, and searches to “kill Muslims” are going up, and searches for “I hate Muslims” were going up. It seemed like everything that Obama was doing — even though all the traditional sources were saying that he was doing a great job — was actually backfiring in terms of its real goal, which was to calm an angry mob that had been inflamed by these San Bernardino attacks.
DUBNER: All right. The book you’ve written is called Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. I understand that’s not the title you were wanting.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The title that I wanted for my book was How Big is My Penis: What Google Searches Reveal About Human Nature. But my publisher was like, “People would be embarrassed to buy that in an airport.”
DUBNER: What share of the data that you’re writing about in the book is Google data? You have other sources.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Yeah, it’s not all Google data. I use anonymous and aggregate data from Pornhub. I scraped some websites. I scraped a hate site, Stormfront. I scraped Wikipedia. I use some Facebook advertising data and some other sources as well.
DUBNER: Tell us quickly your academic background, what you studied and where.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I have a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.
DUBNER: Why did you study philosophy? Just curious about it?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I had big questions about like the meaninglessness of life and the absurdity of the human condition and stuff. But they weren’t really answered. I just got more and more depressed; and then I stopped.
DUBNER: But did your change in vocational course — Ph.D. in economics and now doing what you do now. Have they shed some light on the big existential and philosophical questions?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: No. I just tried to ignore them, not think about them.
He didn’t really ignore the big questions about the human condition. He just found a different window through which to seek the answers.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I was getting my economics Ph.D. and I found that Google had released data on searches: where people made searches and when people made searches. I became obsessed with this data to the point I really couldn’t think about anything else afterwards. My dissertation was entirely on things we could learn about people from Google searches. I studied racism and child abuse and predicting turnout. That was my dissertation.
In 2006, Google began making its search data public through a tool called Google Trends.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The data is all anonymous and aggregate. It’s how many people make searches in a given city or a given state over some time period.
Stephens-Davidowitz’s insight — not that he was the only one with this insight — was that, within the privacy of their own internet browsers, people are more likely to express their true preferences than they would in the traditional surveys and other data-gathering methods that researchers historically use. Those are suspect to what’s known as the social-desirability bias.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Social desirability bias is basically that you want to look good in a survey. Instead of saying the truth, you say what is desirable. Anything that is socially unacceptable will be underreported in surveys. A classic example that we know is if you ask people if you voted in the previous election. A huge percentage of the people who don’t vote say that they vote, because it’s considered socially undesirable to not vote in an election.
How, then, do economists feel about surveys?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Economists hate surveys, because you can’t really trust what people tell you. You have to see what they actually do. You have to pay attention to incentives. A problem with surveys is you don’t really have any incentive to tell the truth. Whereas if you’re online, you have an incentive to tell the truth to get the information that you actually need.
DUBNER: Considering that most surveys are done either anonymously or with someone that you have zero repeat transactions with, why do you think the human animal is predisposed toward protecting or burnishing their reputation even in a case where the stakes almost couldn’t be lower. Why do you think we do that?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: People just are in such a habit of lying in their day-to-day life, people lie to their partners or their kids or their parents, that these behaviors carry over in surveys.
DUBNER: How many lies have you told me already in this conversation?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Uhhhhhh …
DUBNER: Fewer or more than 10?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I’m being pretty honest. I think that — and listeners can decide whether they agree with this — I’m a compulsively honest person.
DUBNER: You say you’re compulsively honest. The title of your book is Everybody Lies. Plainly you’re drawing yourself as an outlier.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I could have said, “98 Percent of People Lie.” But that wouldn’t be a sellable book.
DUBNER: Do you think your compulsive honesty pays off? Or do you feel that compulsive honesty really makes your life more difficult and that lying overall — obviously there’s a million variations in shadings — is a pretty sensible strategy for life.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: It is sensible. I just started, like, changed my dating profile. I had a just okay picture, or maybe even a mediocre picture, because I didn’t want to be misleading. I was getting no dates, and I’m like “Wait, this is stupid.” Then I changed to like a really good picture, and I’m like “Oh. That’s what everybody does. That makes a lot of sense.”
DUBNER: Was it still you in the picture?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: It’s still me. But it’s lying by emphasis, I thought.
DUBNER: What’s the progress been on the dating front?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Much better with a better picture.
[MUSIC: Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles, “Christoph’s Sister” (from Baur’s After Hours)]
So: when we’re putting out information about ourselves, we may lie. But when we want to find information — via Google, let’s say — well, there’s no incentive to lie. That wouldn’t get you the results you want. So … we open up; we tell Google our secrets.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: There are lots of bizarre questions — not just questions but statements — that people make on Google. “I’m sad” or “I’m drunk” or “I love my girlfriend’s boobs.” Why are you telling Google that? It feels like a confessional window where people just type statements with no reason[able impression] that Google would be able to help.
DUBNER: You write in the book, “The microscope showed us there is more to a drop of pond water than we think we see. The telescope showed us there is more to the night sky than we think we see. And new digital data now show us there’s more to human society than we think we see.” love that thought. I’m not sure I believe it. In that, I’m not sure the ramifications will be so large, because the societal insights you’re talking about are often the refinement or even a confirmation of what we’ve already learned through centuries of philosophy and psychology and other fields of inquiry. Tell me why you’re so convinced that this revolution will be as big as the others.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I don’t think that we’re just learning things that we already know. We’re learning a lot of things that we had no idea about: the ways in which our intuition was way off about people. If you talk about what makes people anxious, that’s a huge question, right? I did a couple of studies. I said, “Does anxiety rise after terrorist attacks?” You could see Google searches for anxiety in places after a terrorist attack. They don’t seem to rise. You could say like, “Does anxiety rise when Donald Trump is elected?” Everyone’s saying they’re anxious. There’s no rise in anxiety there, so that changes how we think about society. That’s pretty revolutionary relative to the data we’ve had on human beings before. There are lots of things about people that we had no idea about. One of my favorite examples — and this is just bizarre — [is that] the top search that starts “my husband wants” in India is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” That, nobody knows about. Literally after I published that finding, they started interviewing people in India about this finding. Nobody knew about it. Doctors are like, “We’ve never heard of this.” The fact exists. They’re like, “There’re a reasonable number of men in India — much higher than in any other country — that have this desire.” But they don’t tell anybody, because it’s secret. Those things exist. There are facts about human nature that we didn’t know because people don’t talk about them.
Some of the facts about human nature are unsettling, to say the least. Stephens-Davidowitz spent a lot of time looking for racial hatred, as evidenced by the use of the n-word.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: In the time period I was studying, it was about as frequent as searches like “migraine” and “economist” and “Lakers” and “Daily Show.” It wasn’t a fringe search by any stretch of the imagination. It was about seven million total searches.
He found that searches like this would rise and fall.
Brian WILLIAMS in a clip from a NBC Nightly News: Here in New Orleans tonight, after the giant storm came the rising waters…
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: They rose a lot during Hurricane Katrina. There were all these depictions on the media of African-Americans in a real struggle.
John ROBERTS in a clip from CBS Evening News: An Army National Guard helicopter today rescued people from rooftops, fragile islands in the floodwaters.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Disturbingly, people were making an unusually large number of searches mocking African-Americans during that period. Also, they rise a lot every year Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is also disturbing.
Martin Luther KING, JR. at the 1964 New York City Community Salute in his honor: Free at last. Free at last. Thanks God Almighty, we are free at last.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: There was a big increase in searches when Obama was elected.
OBAMA in a clip from election night, 2008: Hello, Chicago.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: That was the week with the highest searches — in the history of Google search — for racist material.
OBAMA in a clip from election night, 2008: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible …
On the night Obama was elected in 2008, Stephens-Davidowitz says about one in 100 searches that included the word “Obama,” one percent of them also include n-word or “KKK.”
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Which may not sound like a huge amount, but one in a hundred … When you think of all the reasons to Google Obama that night: he’s the first black president. You can Google about his victory speech or his family or his history or lots of other things about him. I was shocked by how frequently people found a negative reason to make that search.
OBAMA in a clip from election night, 2008: Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.
So… that’s when these racist searches were happening. How about where?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: That was surprising. If you had asked me where are racist searches highest in the United States, or where is racism in general highest in the United States, I would have said, “It’s a Southern issue.” Right? You think of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and those states are definitely among the highest. But other areas that are right near the top, or even at the top … The number one state is West Virginia and then Pennsylvania, particularly western Pennsylvania. Eastern Ohio, parts of Michigan [are] very high, industrial Michigan, and upstate New York. There’s really not a big difference between north versus south. It’s east versus west, where it drops substantially once you get west of the Mississippi River, these racist searches.
DUBNER: Let me ask you to talk about the map of racism and how it related to the last several presidential elections.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I was reading this paper by some economists at Berkeley. They were using General Social Survey data to measure racism. They’d ask the question whether racism played a factor in Obama’s vote total in 2008. Even if he won, did he lose votes because of racism? They concluded, using this General Social Survey data, that it was not a factor, that racial attitudes were not a big predictor.
DUBNER: But, again, learning what we’ve learned from talking to you today, we have to say, “Wait a minute. Anything like that based on survey data is suspect.” Was that your first thought as well?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Yeah.”Maybe that’s suspect. Would the Google searches show anything different?” You can’t really just compare how many votes Obama got in places where racism is high, and racism is low. Because those areas may have opposed any Democratic candidate. Right? But you can pair how Obama [did] to the previous Democratic candidate John Kerry, who was white and had similar views. How did he compare to other Democratic candidates? When you do this, you see very clearly a really strong relationship: [in] places that make lots of racist searches, Obama got substantially fewer votes than other white, Democratic candidates did.
DUBNER: You’re telling us, in retrospect, that Obama was, in some ways, an even stronger candidate than he was, right? Winning two elections despite substantial bias against a black candidate?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I calculate that they lost about four percentage points from racism; he also got about one to two percentage points from increased African-American turnout. But on balance, he’s the most charismatic president in history and charisma counts a lot in politics.
DUBNER: What does this say, generally, about overt or public versus covert or private racism?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Over the past 10 or 15 or 20 years in the social sciences, they’ve been trying to answer a big paradox: African-Americans have very bad life outcomes. But white people say they’re not racists. Right? The traditional answer to this is implicit bias. Like you, I, everybody listening, all of us have some subconscious associations between some negative outcomes and black people. This has been used to explain why African-Americans are struggling. One of the things that this research shows is that explicit racism may be playing a bigger role, not this implicit, subconscious stereotypes that have dominated the research in the last 20 years or so.
DUBNER: What did your map of racism predict or tell you about the election of Donald Trump?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I didn’t actually do this. But Nate Cohn, he’s a stats guy at The New York Times. He got data on Trump’s support in the Republican primary, and he asked me for the explicit racism data. He said that it was the biggest predictor he could find of Trump’s support in the primary, was this Google racism data. Stronger than education or age or lots of other things.
DUBNER: What can that tell you or what can you tell us about Hillary Clinton. If Obama carried the day twice with the anti-black bias, can you tell us anything about whether the anti-female bias against Hillary Clinton may have been enough to change the outcome?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: No. I get an email once a week asking me to look into that. It’s a little bit harder. With African-Americans, there’s pretty much one word that is searched more than every other potentially racist word.
DUBNER: I can think of one word that Hillary has been called a lot. That would probably get you fairly far. No?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The issue with sexism is that a lot of the negative words are also porn searches.
[MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Dirty Rice” (from New Orleans-Louisana)]
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: is Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s work being acted upon by people in high places?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I think that, possibly, someone from Obama’s staff read it, because a few weeks later, he gave another speech at a Baltimore mosque.
And: how often do you have sex?
FEMALE LISTENER 3: Several times per week.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: They’ll be exaggerating how often they’re having sex.
That’s coming up, right after this break.
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It was while getting his Ph.D. in economics that Seth Stephens-Davidowitz started using Google search data to try to better understand the world. So it seemed natural to use those data for his dissertation. What did his thesis advisers think of this idea?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ:They all liked it, but they’re like, “You might not get an academic job.”
DUBNER: Did you care about an academic job?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ:Yeah. I thought I wanted to be a professor. Yeah, I did care. But I didn’t get one.
DUBNER: Talk about the difficulty of getting the dissertation published.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: It was considered weird to use Google search data and got some angry responses from journals and the academic market. I didn’t think it was weird, but everyone was telling me it was weird, which was like my life. I’m always weird and I don’t think I’m weird.
[MUSIC: Jonathan Headley, “Step Stones”]
Part of his dissertation eventually was published, as a paper in the Journal of Public Economics. It was called “The Cost of Racial Animus on a Black Presidential Candidate: Evidence Using Google Search Data.” It didn’t get him a job in academia — but it did help get him a job at Google.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Hal Varian, the chief economist there, he liked my work. He is, also, I think, weird and doesn’t realize he’s weird maybe. He was obsessed with Google data long before I was and started this whole thing. We really bonded.
DUBNER: Then what did you do there and how long were you there?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I was there for about a year and a half. It’s like in-house consulting. Google doesn’t really outsource their consulting to like McKinsey. They like having a team inside to understand their data can help them make decisions.
DUBNER: What kind of Google data were you interpreting and then telling Google about?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: A lot of advertising stuff.
DUBNER: Your tone of voice implies lack of thrill. Is that the case?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: That’s why I quit.
DUBNER: Would you have been able to write the book that you’ve written were you still working at Google?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I probably could have, but I would have had to have better social skills to deal with the P.R. department. My social skills have improved a lot in the last two years, but they weren’t that great. Tact was not in my skill set in my 20s.
DUBNER: What do you mean by that?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I like be very aggressive and I thought I knew all the answers and stuff. You know.
DUBNER: How old are you now?
DUBNER: So you’re done with that phase of your life?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I hope so.
[MUSIC: Greg Ruby, “Someone Told Me Your Secret” (from Greg Ruby and The Rhythm Runners)]
DUBNER: Talk for a minute about your level of confidence or your argument for the strength of the evidence in that a Google search, is a proxy for some behavior, question, activity or whatnot. It’s not the fact itself, it’s not the data itself, but it’s a query seeming to represent the fact itself. Can you talk for a minute about how substantial you feel the relationship is between the search and the thing? What gives you that confidence?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: There have been a lot of examples where people have correlated searches with real world behaviors. There’s one study that compares searches for suicide, and these correlate highly with actual suicides. The Google searches for suicide correlate much higher than surveys for suicide. I’ve done research [showing] you can predict how many people will turn out to vote based on whether people search where to vote or how to vote before an election. These correlate much higher than surveys with how many people actually turn out to vote. These crazy searches: “kill Muslims,” really nasty searches about Muslims.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I’ve shown with Evan Soltas, then at Princeton, that these correlate with hate crimes against Muslims. The fact that over and over again they correlate, and usually correlate much stronger than other data sets, is proof that even some of the stranger searches have real information in them.
Real information that may, in some cases, be useful.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: If you’re talking about people who search “kill Muslims” or “I hate Muslims,” this is not your average American. This is someone with extreme animosity, rage and violent thoughts. This unique sample of people, even if it’s small, would be impossible to capture in a survey or to find in a university laboratory experiment. But because Google searches have everybody, they also have this tiny mob. We can study, for maybe the first time, what actually inflames an angry mob and what calms down an angry mob.
As we heard earlier, anti-Muslim searches rose when President Obama was trying to calm things down after the San Bernardino attack.
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers.
But in the last few minutes of that speech, the President changed tack …
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Obama talked about how Muslim-Americans are American heroes.
OBAMA in a clip from the White House: Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes — and yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country.
A nation of Googlers also changed tack …
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: You saw, for the first time in many years, the top descriptor of Muslims on Google was not “Muslim terrorists” or “Muslim refugees.” It was “Muslim athletes” and “Muslim soldiers.” They both skyrocketed and stayed up about a week afterwards.
He was collaborating on this project with Evan Soltas.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: What Evan and I concluded was, maybe, lecturing people is not the best way to change their mind or to calm them down if they’re enraged, but subtly provoking their curiosity. Offering a new description of a group that is causing them so much angst is, maybe, more effective. Then we wrote this up in The New York Times. That got some attention. I think that, possibly, someone from Obama’s staff read it, because a few weeks later, he gave another speech at a Baltimore mosque.
OBAMA at the Islamic Society of Baltimore: Please be seated.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: He really stopped with all the lectures and the sermon. He, instead ,focused much more on the curiosity-provoking. He talked about how not just Muslim athletes and Muslim soldiers, but he talked to a Muslim firefighters and Muslim teachers, and how Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Qur’an and how Muslim-Americans built the skyscrapers in Chicago.
OBAMA at the Islamic Society of Baltimore: Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: He doubled-down or quadrupled-down on this curiosity strategy. It does seem like, right after these words were spoken, the angry searches about Muslim Americans actually went down. There was a drop in searches for “kill Muslims” and “I hate Muslims” after Obama gave this speech.
Stephens-Davidowitz’s book is stuffed with examples of the behaviors that, according to him, everybody lies about. Especially on traditional surveys. So we recruited some Freakonomics Radio listeners, promised them anonymity, and asked them some typical survey questions. And … we asked Stephens-Davidowitz to predict what they’d say.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman, “Mo Carbon Mo Problems” (from The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos)]
DUBNER: If we asked people how frequently they have sex, what do you think they would say?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Men will say about one-and-a-half times a week. And women will say about once a week.
MALE LISTENER 2: Oh, I mean, it varies from week to week. Maybe once or twice a week, if I’m supposed to average it.
FEMALE LISTENER 1: I would say three or four times a month.
FEMALE LISTENER 3: Several times per week.
DUBNER: How does that compare to the reality, as best we know?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: They’ll be exaggerating how often they’re having sex.
DUBNER: How do you know that they’re exaggerating?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I did this comparison The General Social Survey asks men and women how frequently they have sex and whether they use a condom. If you do the math on that, then American men say they use 1.6 billion condoms in heterosexual sexual encounters. American women use 1.1 billion condoms in heterosexual sexual encounters. Obviously, those — by definition — have to be the same, right? You know already that someone’s lying. But then I got data from Nielsen on how many condoms are sold every year in the United States and only 600 million condoms are sold every year. That doesn’t mean that they’re lying about how much how much sex they’re having. That might just be having more unprotected sex. But if you actually look at the best math on how frequently people get pregnant, if people are having as much unprotected sex as they say they’re having, there would be more pregnancies every year in the United States.
DUBNER: Right. Although, you have to factor in terminations as well, correct?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Even including how many abortions there are.
DUBNER: In other words, bottom line is, people lie a lot to a significant degree. What would you put the rate of exaggeration at for sex frequency?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Three to one for men, and two to one for women.
DUBNER: Wow. If we ask people if they watch pornography, what will they say and how accurate will that be?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: I thought that everybody would say yes, because I thought that, in this day and age, at least the males would be okay saying that they watch pornography.
MONTAGE OF FEMALE VOICES: No. No. No.
MALE LISTENER 1: Yes. Is everybody just saying no?
MALE LISTENER 2: On occasion. Everybody has urges that need to be fulfilled.
FEMALE LISTENER 1: I had no clue you guys would ask me that. I just don’t. I never have.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: Women make up about 20 percent of pornography views now. There is probably some deception there.
DUBNER: We asked a bunch of people if they think Super Bowl ads make them more likely to buy the product that’s being advertised. What do you think they’ll say, and what’s the reality?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: They’ll probably say no, because people don’t like to think that they’re influenced by ads.
MONTAGE OF MALE AND FEMALE VOICES: No, no, no, no
MALE LISTENER 1: I think they increase the awareness but I don’t find many of the Super Bowl ads relevant to me.
FEMALE LISTENER 2: When I’m looking to buy a product, I don’t, at least, consciously think that I get my information for it from commercials.
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: The reality is definitely yes. The way people have studied this is comparing product purchases in cities of teams that made it, versus cities that just missed the Super Bowl. You get a big shock to viewership and those cities end up buying those advertised products much more. It’s clearly very effective.
DUBNER: All right. Seth, You make a very persuasive argument that Google search data is a great tool to figure out who we are and what we care about and so on. Especially when it’s not going to be revealed in a more traditional way. But, obviously, Google search data hardly reveals everything. I’d like you totell us one thing that’s provocative or embarrassing or surprising about you that we will never, ever be able to learn from a Google search.
DUBNER: How does it feel now, Seth?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: One thing that’s embarrassing or surprising about me that you’ll never learn from Google search …
DUBNER: You want to get back to us by e-mail? We can note that there were like 18 seconds of incredibly awkward silence followed by an e-mail a week later. That’s fine.
[MUSIC: Obfusc, “Before We Lose Our Legs” (from Internal Countryside)]
A week later, to the day, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz did send an e-mail.
Subject line: “Embarrassing thing I have never Googled.” It read, quote, “I am embarrassed and insecure about how I sleep. I have been told I twitch and jerk like a maniac. For some reason, I have never Googled this particular issue. But it is possible someone who has shared a bed with me has. In case you are curious: The top three Googled complaints about male partners are that he talks, twitches, and jerks in his sleep. The top three Googled complaints about female partners are that she talks, farts, and masturbates in her sleep.” End quote.
That’s our show for today — thanks for listening. Again, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s book is called Everybody Lies. Next time on Freakonomics Radio:
Steven BALLMER: Hi, this is Steve Ballmer. I am a retired CEO of Microsoft.
Ballmer’s new project? It’s a sort of fiscal colonoscopy on the American government.
BALLMER: If I’m a citizen, I don’t want to know just where the government got its money from and where it’s spent. Is it working at all? Or at least, what activity is it generating?
He’s also a little bit excited about owning a professional basketball team:
BALLMER: Hoopers, hoopers, hoopers!
That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Christopher Werth. Shelley Lewis, Stephanie Tam, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Eliza Lambert, Alison Hockenberry, Emma Morgenstern, Harry Huggins, and Brian Gutierrez; with engineering help from Matt Fidler and Rick Kwan. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times.
- Our Anonymous Listeners.
- “The Cost of Racial Animus on a Black Presidential Candidate: Evidence Using Google Search Data” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2013).
- Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Dey Street Books 2017).
- “Essays Using Google Data,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2013).
- Fifty States of Anxiety Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, The New York Times, (Aug 6, 2016).
- Google Trends.
- Pornhub Insights Blog.
- “Racial Bias in the 2008 Presidential Election,” Alexandre Mas and Enrico Moretti (2008).
- “Rethinking Suicide Surveillance: Google Search Data and Self-Reported Suicidality Differentially Estimate Completed Suicide Risk,” Christine Ma-Kellams, Flora Or, Ji Hyun Baek and Ichiro Kawachi (2015).
- “Searching for Sex,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, The New York Times, (January 25, 2015)
- “Who Will Vote? Ask Google,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2013).
- If Google Was A Guy by CollegeHumor.