Anytime we travel through the Internet we leave piles of data behind us, like Pigpen shedding his cloud of filth. It's too bad if you're concerned about privacy. But if you're a mathematician, that heap of dirt is more like a goldmine, and digging into it can turn up unexpected nuggets. A study of worldwide Google searches, for one thing, reveals that people in wealthier nations think less about the past.
Google collects data on what search terms people around the world are using. Researchers who want to use this data to compare search terms across different countries are usually restricted to places that share a language. But the authors of a new paper in Scientific Reports got around that problem by looking only at numerical search terms.
"We realized...that years represented in Arabic numerals are an almost universal written representation," author
Helen Susannah Moat wrote in an email. By looking only at search terms such as 2011 or 2010, she and her coauthors could compare search data from nearly the whole globe.
"It seemed a logical first step to consider to what extent Internet users were searching for dates in the future compared to dates in the past," Moat says. For example, looking at data from 2010, the researchers compared searches including 2011 to those including 2009. The ratio of forward-looking to backward-looking searches in each country became its "future orientation" score.
The authors culled data from 45 countries with substantial Internet-using populations. Then they sorted those 45 countries by GDP ("also the most obvious variable," Moat says). A clear pattern popped out of the numbers: Countries with lower GDPs had lower future orientation scores, and vice versa. People in poorer countries did more searches concerning the previous year; those in wealthier nations searched more for the next year. The trend was strong, and it held up in data from 2009 and 2008 as well.
Countries with the lowest future orientation scores included Pakistan and Vietnam, where previous-year searches outnumbered next-year searches by a factor of three or four to one. In the United States and Canada, countries toward the higher end in future orientation, searches for the last year and the next year were roughly equal. Switzerland, Australia, and the United Kingdom were among the most forward-looking countries of all.
"One of the possible interpretations of our results," Moat writes, "is that a focus on the future supports economic success." In other words, populations that are more forward-thinking become wealthier. This up-by-the-bootstraps explanation doesn't seem like the simplest one, though.
Another possibility is that populations with more money and leisure time can afford to spend it thinking about the future. A person in a wealthier nation might search online for next year's concert tickets, dates of work holidays, or when the new iPad is coming out. Someone without disposable income, though, might not have many such events to look forward to.
Here's some good news for people in all nations: Google Trends is available online for aspiring data analysts to play with. Panning for gold in its graphs won't cost anything except your free time.
Preis, T., Moat, H.S., Stanley, H.E., & Bishop, S.R. (2012). Quantifying the Advantage of Looking Forward.
Scientific Reports, 2, 350.