Bookshelf Think

The Truth About Ourselves

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reveals human nature better than perhaps any book before it.

A few decades ago, one of my favourite writers, Georges Simenon, was asked in a Paris Review interview about the main problems that he faced in his work. He replied:

One of them, for example, which will probably haunt me more than any other is the problem of communication. I mean communication between two people. The fact that we are I don’t know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world. When I was a young boy I was afraid of it. I would almost scream because of it. It gave me such a sensation of solitude, of loneliness.

I was reminded of Simenon’s quote when I read ‘Cat Person’, a short story by Kristen Roupenian published last week in the New Yorker. The story has gone viral, and has somehow gotten mixed up in arguments of gender politics, but beyond all of that, it is a brilliant work of fiction that illustrates Simenon’s point. We can never truly know another person, and thus communicate with them. But a greater problem, if I may attempt to go beyond Simenon, is that we can never even know ourselves.

We deceive ourselves more than we deceive others. Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reveals the extent of these delusions — and does a better job of revealing human nature than any book before it. That is a large claim, so let’s step back a bit.

How can we know what humans are truly like? In his foreword to Everybody Lies, Steven Pinker writes about the search for “tools to expose the workings of human nature.” As an experimental psychologist, he says, he tried “rating scales, reaction times, pupil dilation, functional neuroimaging, even epilepsy patients with implanted electrodes who were happy to while away the hours in a language experiment while waiting to have a seizure.” But while “the most sophisticated neuroimaging methodologies can tell us how a thought is splayed out in 3-D space,” it cannot tell us “what the thought consists of.” The Cerebroscope, the mythical device that would display a person’s thoughts on a screen, remains the stuff of myth. Until now.

“People lie to friends, lovers, doctors, surveys, and themselves,” writes Stephens-Davidowitz. But not to Google. In this book, Stephens-Davidowitz examines data from Google, Facebook, Wikipedia and various porn sites to see if the Big Data there reveals Deep Truths about humanity. It does, to the extent that he concludes, “I am now convinced that Google searches are the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche.”

One of Stephens-Davidowitz’s early concerns was to understand the extent of racism in America. If you went by surveys, it would seem that the USA had entered a “post-racial utopia” in the heady Obama years. But people were lying to surveys. On Google, “the word ‘nigger’ — or its plural, ‘niggers’ — was included in roughly the same number of searches as the word ‘migraine(s)’, ‘economist’ and ‘lakers’.” Common search terms included “stupid niggers” and “I hate niggers.” “In some states,” Stephens-Davidowitz writes, “there were more searches for ‘nigger president’ than ‘first black president.'”

This was in 2012, when Donald Trump was no more than a celebrity clown, and Stephens-Davidowitz also found that the surveys and conventional wisdom were wrong about racism being more prevalent in the South and among Republicans. He writes, “the places with the highest racist search rates included upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, industrial Michigan and rural Illinois, along with West Virginia, southern Lousiana, and Missisippi. […] Google searches, in other words, helped draw a new map of racism in the United States.” This map would become familiar to TV viewers four years later in a different context — Trump’s victory in the presidential elections.

Everybody Lies is full of such insights about politics, such as Stephens-Davidowitz’s revelation that people who search for “Trump-Clinton debate” are more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton — and vice versa. (How much the mere ordering of words reveals!) But the most noteworthy insights from the book, to me, fall in the personal domain. What is happening in our bedrooms — and in our heads?

One, contrary to what they tell surveys, people are not having enough sex. “On Google, the top complaint about a marriage is not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are three and a half times more common than ‘unhappy marriage’ and eight times more common than ‘loveless marriage.'” Indeed, “there are sixteen times more complaints about a spouse not wanting sex than about a married partner not being willing to talk.” Contrary to stereotypes, “there are twice as many complaints that a boyfriend won’t have sex than that a girlfriend won’t have sex. By far, the number one search complaint about a boyfriend is ‘My boyfriend won’t have sex with me.'” Who woulda thunk?

Speaking of sex, Stephens-Davidowitz found that Americans “search for ‘porn’ more than they search for ‘weather’.” This isn’t rocket science — you can’t jerk off to cumulus clouds — but difficult to reconcile “with the survey data that only about 25 percent of men and 8 percent of women admit they watch pornography.”

Besides Google data, Stephens-Davidowitz also examined data from PornHub, a leading porn website. ‘Incest’ is a surprisingly popular category, but one finding that surprised me was that 25% of searches on PornHub by women feature violence against women, and “emphasize the pain and/or humiliation of the woman — ‘painful anal crying,’ ‘public disgrace,’ and ‘extreme brutal gangbang,’ for example. Five percent look for nonconsensual sex — ‘rape’ or ‘forced’ sex — even though these videos are banned on PornHub. And search rates for all these terms are at least twice as common among women as among men.”

This was a finding that stunned me. In my examinations of such sites, made for purely sociological purposes, I had always been surprised by how ‘nonconsent’ was a common category — but I assumed that only men would consume that content. Not quite. (Needless to say, as Stephens-Davidowitz points out, “there is a difference between fantasy and real life.” Women who search for videos depicting violence on women don’t necessarily want to be subjected to that same violence themselves. This is an obvious but important clarification in these times, when such data can be misused by misogynists and sociopaths.)

Another revelation about sexuality is about Indians, and it completely threw me. Stephens-Davidowitz used Google’s autocomplete feature, which throws up the most popular searches featuring a term. He writes, “Did you know that in India the number one search beginning ‘my husband wants…’ is ‘my husband wants me to breastfeed him’?” (I wanted to see if this was still true, so I tried the autocomplete feature, and found that not only was this still true, the number two completion is “my husband wants me to breastfeed his friends.” And just see the other top searches.)

Beyond this, “porn searches for depictions of women breastfeeding men are four times higher in India and Bangladesh than in any other country in the world.” This breastfeeding fetish is clearly some cultural thing, and I encourage sociologists reading this to take a stab at answering it — I’ve been scratching my head and can’t even come up with possible reasons that explain why it exists here and nowhere else.

Another finding that is universal and won’t surprise you: “Men conduct more searches for how to make their penises bigger than how to tune a guitar, make a omelet or change a tire.” Their queries about their penis number more than those about “their lungs, liver, feet, ears, nose, throat and brain combined.” (Some of them should be more worried about their brain, as indicated by the large number of people who search for “How big is my penis?” How the hell would Google know that?)

Conversely, the book reveals: “Women are most frequently concerned that their vaginas smell like fish, followed by vinegar, onions, ammonia, garlic, cheese, body odor, urine, bread, bleach, feces, sweat, metal, feet, garbage, and rotten meat.” Stephens-Davidowitz wisely sums it up: “We are all so busy judging our own bodies that there is little energy left over to judge other people’s.” Nothing illustrates this self-obsession better than this finding: “Men make as many searches looking for ways to perform oral sex on themselves as they do how to give a woman an orgasm.”

Yes, please read that again.

Let’s move from sex to procreation. I had once written a controversial piece on why it is immoral to have children, and while morality will remain subjective, the data does indicate that immoral or not, it might be unwise to have children. Consider these two findings. One: “People are seven times more likely to ask Google whether they will regret not having children than whether they will regret having children.” Two: “Adults with children are 3.6 times more likely to tell Google they regret their decision than are adults without children.”

That settles it, then. (It also confirms my hypothesis that much of the hate mail I got after that column was from parents who were in denial about their own regret at having kids, and were lashing out when confronted with the truth. There, another round of trolling will now come my way.)

Proving my belief that most people are unfit to be parents to begin with, Google data also reveals the ugly gender bias of parents. “Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask ‘Is my son gifted?’ than ‘Is my daughter gifted?'” Also, “Parents Google ‘Is my daughter overweight?’ roughly twice as frequently as they Google ‘Is my son overweight?'” This bias flies in the face of facts. Firstly, “At young ages, girls have consistently been shown to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences.” They are also more likely than boys to be enrolled in gifted programs in schools. Secondly, “About 28 percent of girls are overweight, while 35% of boys are.”

Everybody Lies also takes a piercing look at social media — especially Facebook. This is where the distinction between who we are and who we pretend to be becomes most stark. Stephens-Davidowitz writes:

Facebook is digital brag-to-my-friends-about-how-good-my-life-is serum. In Facebook world, the average adult appears to be happily married, vacationing in the Caribbean, and perusing the Atlantic. In the real world, a lot of people are angry, on supermarket checkout lines, peeking at the National Enquirer, ignoring the phone calls from their spouse, whom they haven’t slept with in years.

Imagine, then, the anxiety that can result from comparing your own life with the seemingly fun lives of others. As Stephens-Davidowitz writes:

I think Big Data can give a twenty-first century update to a famous self-help slogan: “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.” A Big Data update may be: “Never compare your Google searches to everyone else’s social media posts.”

Google, Facebook and PornHub provide just a subset of Big Data, and Stephens-Davidowitz examine other manifestations of it. For example, “we can predict whether a man and woman will go on a second date based on how they speak on the first date.” We can also see the impact violent movies have on crime. (“On weekends with a popular violent movie… crime dropped.”) We can see how likely a person is to have a Wikipedia entry to themselves (a proxy for achievement). It turns out that how much money your state spends on education has nothing to do with this, but one strong indicator is “the proportion of immigrants in your country of birth.”

Everybody Lies does not pretend to offer solutions to our many delusions. It is useful to just know the extent of them. There is an old Greek aphorism, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, or Know Thyself. This book could help you do just that — or you could just examine your Google search history.

About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.