Big Data and Understanding Human Behaviour

The premise in Everybody Lies seems sound to me. Here we have an entirely new dataset which reveals things about people that they are not willing to reveal. E.g., don’t listen to the audiobook in the car with kids — it goes into a lot of challenging areas, e.g., racism, sexual proclivities (some quite dark). He is especially proud (and one can see why) of his ability to offer a view of racism in the US. He argues that academics have largely focused on implicit racism (non-conscious/automatic) but have somewhat glossed over old fashioned racism. People still make a surprisingly large number of searches with the n-word in. This may be true but I still think non-conscious racism is worth studying but given it doesn’t fit with his methods he seemed a little dismissive.

The core idea is hard to argue with. “In other words people’s search for information is itself information” (Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017). What people ask Google tells us a lot about what they are thinking about. Their secrets, worries, and hatreds. Much of it was fascinating and i think we can learn a lot. As Stephens-Davidowitz emphasizes people will tell Google things they won’t tell humans.

Stephens-Davidowitz will probably annoy a whole bunch of academics with his writing. He does seem to dismiss survey research — the title “Everyone Lies” seems to imply that it isn’t worth asking people what they think. After all they lie. He comes across as a bit of a big data evangelist telling us that all past methods are dead. I am somewhat with him. I don’t want to dismiss past methods but we certainly do need to think of whether the majority of marketing scholarship should be lab-based student subjects studies in a world where a host of other (sometimes better, sometimes worse) data is available.

I enjoyed his discussion of the dangers of big data. It mad me a laugh a bit because it felt forced, almost as though someone told him he needed to warn of the dangers of big data but his heart wasn’t it in. There are intriguing questions about invasion of privacy but I personally don’t see privacy extending to your right to plan to murder your girlfriend in secret. I don’t think he does either but I was a bit confused at the end what he thought given his most cogent argument was that you’d get a load of false positives if you visit everyone who is looking into killing their girlfriend. Beyond the scary idea about how many people are considering murder I’m not sure that is a moral argument (we shouldn’t) but a practical argument (we can’t). The moral arguments are fascinating but probably the weakest part of the book.

Overall though this is a great book, filled with fascinating and somewhat disturbing detail. What we do online really can tell us a lot about who we are.

Read: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2017) Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Harper Collins