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Mapping behaviour across cultures using internet search data

A pioneering application of Google data sheds light on society’s rules

By Matt Baldwin and Thomas Mussweiler 01 November 2018

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When you walk into a new office for that crunch job interview, several thoughts will pop into your head. While planning for those tough questions, you’ll also be working out how to fit in.

According to new research from Thomas Mussweiler, London Business School (LBS) Professor of Organisational Behaviour, the desire to be accepted is driven by social comparison – a process which takes place almost involuntarily – where you compare yourself to other people.

Much of Professor Mussweiler’s research focuses on social comparison processes – examining how we compare ourselves to others and thereby change our self-image, motivation and performance. Work in this field has shown that social comparison facilitates thinking in personal perception, emotion, attitudes and problem-solving.

Now, with co-author Dr Matt Baldwin, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Social Cognition Center in Cologne, their new paper The culture of social comparison published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) maps US social comparison data from Google, available through Google Correlate.

The paper looks at search frequencies for a variety of emotion-related words that indicate social comparison such as ‘jealous’ and ‘pride’. Using a novel and innovative technique meant a lot of background work went into validating the method used in the paper, to ensure the results captured psychologically relevant reactions.

“Social comparison is an involuntary mechanism about understanding yourself and others.”

Why compare?


Humans’ ability to coordinate behaviour economically and politically across distance and time is unique. To keep these processes running smoothly, we look to others as a comparison to create standards of behaviour.

On an individual level, everyone compares themselves to peers almost all of the time. Social comparison is an involuntary mechanism about understanding yourself and others. For example, when starting a new job, the newcomer looks around to gauge what everyone else is wearing.

Mussweiler explains: “The fundamental human tendency to look to others for social cues about what to think, and how to feel and behave, can give rise to a range of emotions. But it has also enabled humankind to thrive in a highly complex and increasingly interconnected, social world. We now understand much more about what drives that tendency.

“In socially tight situations like the first day in a new office or a job interview, there is a strong driver to know, and to mimic, what others do.”

Hanging tight and loose


The degree to which a society expects individuals to fit in is defined as ‘tight’ or ‘loose’. A tight society has a lot conventions and punishes people for breaking them, where as a loose society is more relaxed and has fewer rules. The scientific study of tight and loose cultures has received some recent attention in social psychology, but this is the first time search term data has been used by researchers to analyse this cultural dimension. One hypothesis the paper explores is whether people in tight cultures are more likely to look to their peers for cues on how to behave, in turn shedding light on the role comparative behaviour has in creating cultural norms.

Tight and loose cultures have their own strengths and weaknesses, and are considered to have developed in response to environmental pressures that might threaten our species’ survival. It is hypothesised that tight cultures emerged in response to stress like famine and disease. In these challenging environments you need strict rules and a high degree of behavioural regulation and restriction. In other words, a society under pressure can’t afford to allow people to act however they please because doing so can endanger the group.

Drawing upon the existing research, the paper includes a Culture of Social Comparison Map of the US, showing which states are ‘tight’ and which are ‘loose’. The map is the first time tightness has been linked to making more social comparisons.

The interactive map compares each US state on this scale of tight through to loose. The southern states led by Mississippi scored as the tightest. Oregon and the north broadly ranked the loosest.

“One conclusion, which could be drawn, is that comparative thinking is not just a building block of our own thoughts but of society as a whole.”

Why use Google to examine social comparison?


Using Google Correlate is valid in this study because these are real queries, from real people, about the world they live in. The challenge was separating the relevant searches from the irrelevant.

“While social comparison has been studied in the lab, the lab has a certain artificiality,” observes Professor Mussweiler. “Typically the social comparative information provided in the laboratory is not the same as the genuine information individuals seek in the real world.

“Nowadays people seek comparative information about others on the internet so that is what makes this data valuable.”

Researchers have previously used the Google Correlate database to map the spread of flu through search queries. Using a similar correlation method, this paper demonstrates that Google searches related to social comparison are more frequent in tight cultures than in loose cultures.

The implication of the findings is that social comparison is the link between ecological threat, the broader social behaviour it creates and the outcomes for individuals. A conclusion which could be drawn is that comparative thinking is not just a building block of our own thoughts but of society as a whole.

The next steps for the methodology is to use it to explore how social comparison varies over time and in response to different events like disease outbreaks, natural disasters, terror threats and elections.

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