EVERYBODY LIES

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOOWITZ

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has written a fascinating book about social scientists using data collected by Google or Facebook in their research. Things to be learned from reading LIES:

  1. Some people use search engines as confessionals. They type complete sentences like “I am sad.” or open-ended questions like “Is my daughter ugly?”
  2. People assume machines (like the Google search engine) will keep their secrets. For sensitive topics, Google may generate more honest data than surveys. There are many questions asked to Google that I’m sure people won’t pose to a librarian.
  3. Google searches for “Obama” is frequently paired with “kkk” and the “n” word. The prevalence of racist searches does not exhibit a North-South divide – it’s East-West.
  4. As President of Harvard, Larry Summers spent quite a bit of time brainstorming with Economics PhD students on how to beat the stock market using new data. (And they came up empty-handed, or so they say.)
  5. Some economists found that going to Stuyvesant (a highly influential high school) conferred no meaningful benefit to one’s career – at least, this is the case for those who attain a score close to the cutoff in the admissions test.
  6. There are 6,000 searches on Google a year for “how to kill your girlfriend” while there are 400 murders of girlfriends.
  7. “Big data” does not provide any insights that surveys can’t at the aggregate level so people slice and dice the data to examine “micro” segments, which means they are analyzing a huge collection of small data sets.

I borrowed this interview from VOX’s interview with author Stephens-Davidowitz.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Liesa new book that uses data on America’s Google habits as an insight into our national consciousness. Two findings from the book dominated the conversation: America is riddled with racist and selfish people, and there may be a self-induced abortion crisis in this country. But there was plenty more revelatory data in the book that we didn’t cover. So I wanted to follow up with Stephens-Davidowitz to talk about some of the other provocative claims he is making. I was particularly interested in sexuality and online porn. If, as Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “Google is a digital truth serum,” then what else does it tell us about our private thoughts and desires? What else are we hiding from our friends, neighbors, and colleagues? A lot, apparently. Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz’s data suggests that there are more gay men in the closet than we think; that many men prefer overweight women to skinny women but are afraid to act on it; that married women are disproportionately worried their husband is gay; that a lot of straight women watch lesbian porn; and that porn featuring violence against women is more popular among women than men. I asked Stephens-Davidowitz to explain the data behind all of this. Here’s what he told me.


Sean Illing

Last time we spoke, I asked you about the most surprising or shocking finding in your research. We talked about racism and the possibility of a self-induced abortion crisis in America. Here I want to dive into something a little lighter: sexuality and online porn. What did you learn about this?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn is the biggest development in sexuality research ever. I don’t understand how social scientists weren’t begging Pornhub for their data. I was one of the only ones. I sent some of my results to some of the most famous sociologists and sex researchers in the world. Many of them had no interest.

Sean Illing

Why does porn data offer such unique insight?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, to learn about sex, the main approach was to ask people. But people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.

Sean Illing

You combed through the data — what did it say about us?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s a lot of variation in what people like. Probably 30 percent of people exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.

Sean Illing

Why focus on sex? Were you initially interested in this, or did the data lead you to it?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s a book about human nature. Sex is a big part of human nature. Some reviews of Everybody Lies have criticized me for being obsessed with sex. Everybody is obsessed with sex. If they say they’re not, they’re lying.

Sean Illing

You point to some interesting data in the book about sexual orientation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s clear that a lot of gay men remain in the closet. In places where it’s hard to be gay, such as Mississippi, far fewer men say that they are gay than in places where it’s easy to be gay, such as New York. But gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.

Sean Illing

This doesn’t necessarily tell us how many people are gay in these areas, but it’s a revealing data point.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I look at the data a whole bunch of ways and conclude about 5 percent of men are predominantly attracted to men.

Sean Illing

Can you really draw concrete conclusions from this sort of data? People search for things for all kinds of reasons, right?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think porn is a pretty good measure of people’s sexual fantasies, even if they never act on them.

Sean Illing

What’s your response to people who are skeptical of inferring anything from this stuff?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think watching a porn video is a lot more telling than answering a survey question. I agree you should be cautious in how you interpret it, though.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about what married people are up to online.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.

Sean Illing

Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think women are too obsessed with their husbands’ sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.

Sean Illing

What are husbands secretly worrying about?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are crazy.

Sean Illing

What should husbands be asking Google? What would they ask if they knew what their wives were Googling?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are more physically attracted to women than men.

Sean Illing

Tell me about America’s suppressed sexual desires.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There are still sexual preferences that people hide today, even in socially liberal places. About one in 100 porn searches are for the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. But very few young men are in relationships with elderly women.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure what I think about that. Any theories?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s interesting. Some sexual preferences I first learned about on The Jerry Springer Show,which featured really poor, uneducated people. People attracted to animals or family members or the elderly. But, now from seeing porn data, I realize those preferences also exist among wealthy, educated people. Wealthy, educated people are more cognizant of contemporary social norms, which means if you have such an attraction, you hide it.

Sean Illing

I recall something in the book about the sexual preferences we hide largely for cultural reasons or for fear of being judged. Can you talk about that?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

If you define being in the closet as picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want, many people are in the closet. For example, I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.

Porn featuring overweight women is surprisingly common among men. But the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends.

Sean Illing

That says something truly awful about our cultural pathologies. People should be free to like whatever they want, but the pressures to conform are overwhelming — and ultimately unhealthy.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s also inefficient. There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency.

Sean Illing

All right, give me a couple of unusual desires you noticed — one from men and one from women.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It is really amazing how much tastes can vary. There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises. There are men who just watch porn featuring women with enormous nipples.

Sean Illing

How about other countries?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one Google search in India that starts “my husband wants …” is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” Porn featuring adult breastfeeding is higher in India than anywhere else. In just about every country, just about every Google search looking for advice on breastfeeding is looking how to breastfeed a baby. In India, Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband.

After I published this finding, some journalists interviewed people in India. Everyone denied this. But I am sure, based on the data, that there are a reasonable number of adult Indian men desiring to be breastfed. It is really amazing that this desire can develop in one country without ever being openly talked about.

Sean Illing

Any other findings from countries not named America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Japanese men have recently become obsessed with tickling porn. More than 10 percent of Pornhub searches by young Japanese men are for “tickling.”

Sean Illing

So basically all of humanity is united in its weirdness?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, basically. Some people respond to Indian men wanting to be breastfed and are like, “Indian men are so weird.” That’s not the right response. The data from porn tells us that everybody is weird. Thus, nobody is weird.

Sean Illing

And yet we all feel weird because we assume (wrongly) that no one else is as weird as we are.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyone’s porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds. And then we’d all get over it and be more open about sex.

Sean Illing

Any other surprising findings about women in America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

About 20 percent of the porn women watch is lesbian porn. A lot of straight women watch lesbian porn.

Sean Illing

That’s not very surprising.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn featuring violence against women is also extremely popular among women. It is far more popular among women than men. I hate saying that because misogynists seem to love this fact. Fantasy life isn’t always politically correct.

The rate at which women watch violent porn is roughly the same in every part of the world. It isn’t correlated with how women are treated.

Sean Illing

Let me ask you this: Has all of this research changed how you think about sexuality in general?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I have always wondered how homosexuality made it through evolution. Like, isn’t evolution supposed to make people desire heterosexual sex with fertile people? But after studying porn, I realized homosexuality is hardly the only desire that doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Less than 20 percent of porn watched these days features vaginal sex to completion among two people who can conceivably have a healthy baby. Cartoons, anal sex to completion, oral sex to completion, foot sex to completion, incest, elderly porn, tickling, animal porn, sex with objects, etc.

Sean Illing

Sex is clearly about a lot more than procreation, and I’d say a lot of needless suffering has resulted from our confusion about this.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think the reason is we are growing up under very different conditions than we evolved under. Hunter-gatherer kids didn’t watch The Simpsons. And hunter-gatherer adults didn’t watch Simpsons porn. I think we are evolved so that if we grew up in hunter-gatherer conditions, just about all people would have an overwhelming desire for vaginal sex. But modern conditions take sexuality in all kinds of directions. I’m becoming more convinced of that the more data I look at.

Sean Illing

So what’s the future of online porn? Where is it going?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think anal sex will pass vaginal sex in porn within three years. That’s what my data models suggest.

Sean Illing

Somehow that feels like a perfect point on which to end.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

People should buy my book. There’s a lot more!

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