Episode #362: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Data Scientist & Author, “You Do Have To Be Willing To Go Where The Data Takes You”
Guest: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a data scientist, author, and keynote speaker. His book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, was a New York Times bestseller and an Economist Book of the Year. Seth has worked as a data scientist at Google and a visiting lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times. His next book, Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life, is scheduled to release in Spring 2022.
Date Recorded: 9/29/2021 | Run-Time: 48:47
Summary: In today’s episode, we’re focused on what we can learn from alternative data. We start with Seth’s first book and how mining google search data taught him things about racism, abortion, and yes, even some of our sexual preferences. Then we turn to his upcoming book, Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life and hear what the data says about how to live a better life. Seth walks us through the takeaways for finding a spouse, living healthier, and being happier.
If you’re a data geek like myself, you’ll definitely want to listen to this.
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Links from the Episode:
- 0:40 – Intro
- 1:27 – Welcome to our guest, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
- 2:02 – Don’t Trust Your Gut and the role your looks play in life
- 6:55 – How our own instincts mislead us
- 8:44 – Everybody Lies and why wasn’t it named “How Big Is My Penis?”
- 10:47 – How Google has become an open diary for so many people
- 13:00 – Some of his favorite takeaways and facts from writing Everybody Lies
- 14:29 – Episode #105: Olivia Judson
- 14:59 – The experience of mining Google search data
- 19:28 – Sponsor – Public.com
- 20:50 – How the spouse we look for compares to the spouse we marry differs
- 23:52 – Episode #337: Professor Richard Thaler, University of Chicago
- 29:25 – Where people spend their time doesn’t typically align with what fulfills them
- 33:13 – Are people really not finding joy in sleeping?
- 36:03 – Happy Money and Seth’s key for finding fulfillment in your experiences
- 37:41 – Is smiling really important when you’re selling something?
- 41:40 – Seth’s most memorable sports memory has been across his life
- 45:34 – Learn more about Seth; Twitter @seths_d
Transcript of Episode 362:
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Meb: What’s up, everybody? Another great show today. Our guest is a data scientist and author of, “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are,” which was a New York Times bestseller and an economist book of the year. In today’s show we’re focused on what we can learn from alternative data. We start with our guest first book and how mining Google Search data taught him things about racism, abortion, and yes, even some of our sexual preferences.
Then we turn to his upcoming book titled “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” then hear what the data says about how to live a better life. He walks us through the takeaways for finding a spouse, living healthier, and being happier. If you’re a data geek like myself, you’ll definitely want to listen into this one. Please enjoy this episode with data scientist and best-selling author, Seth Stephens Davidowitz. Seth, welcome to the show.
Seth: Ready to rock.
Meb: I was reading your new book, which will hit the shelves this spring and I wasn’t sure which Seth I was going to get. Was I going to get competent-looking glasses and beard Seth? Was I going to get M&M Seth? Was I going to get the shaved head?
Seth: Pathetic-looking Seth.
Meb: Which one, and I… I’m in the middle of writing a book, Seth.
Seth: Yeah, we got… I requested that the video be turned off to not see the inconfident-looking Seth.
Meb: Give us the backstory.
Seth: So, my new book, “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” is how you can use data to make better life decisions. And, there’s all this research on how much your face matters in, like, how far you advance in life. And they can predict with great accuracy which politician is going to win an election based on which one looks more competent to people who have no idea who these politicians are, which is actually incredibly disturbing. You’d like to think that we pick our politicians based on who has the best policies, who makes the best arguments, who’s willing to work the hardest. But, it frequently is just someone who looks like, yeah, that person knows what they’re doing.
Meb: I wonder how much that has been co-opted by, I mean, you could date this back probably to the time of Kennedy and Nixon with the first televised debate. But, I wonder how much this has made it into campaign headquarters, where they’re straight-up running surveys and AV testing where they’re like, “Look, this person’s awesome, but they sort of look like a moron. So, all the polling shows that they just do not look competent, therefore, we can’t run them.” Like is that something people actually…do you think that goes on behind the scenes yet?
Seth: Like, if you’re talking about presidential race, I think the people that everybody focuses on as possible presidential candidates are ones who have advanced so high in part because they do look the part. So, once you get to that level, kind of every candidate looks presidential, and I follow, even in the presidential elections, it makes, I think, a pretty big difference.
So, at the start of the Democratic primary, I was writing about this researcher, Alexander Todorov, I talk about in the book is the leader of this field. And some people do that. I was writing about this, and they said, so who looks the most competent in the democratic race? And I said, I kind of first made the point that at this level like all these candidates look competent. They all were really good-looking in high school and had that kind of charismatic, attractive appearance. But I said, “That said, like, Biden, to me, looks by far the most, like, a president. He kind of has that Michael Douglas presidential look,” and then he ended up winning. So, I think even at the presidential level, it makes a huge difference.
Anyway, so this is depressing. But the other thing that this research has shown is that people can vary a fair amount in how competent they come across. So, it’s depressing that people are so superficial, but maybe it’s a little less depressing that at least we have some control over what we look like, and how we come across. And that a person with a moustache will come across as very different competent level than if the same person had a beard, person smiles, person wears glasses or doesn’t wear glasses, all these things can have a big impact.
That kind of motivated me to say, okay, I’m, like, kind of a typical nerd. I would say I paid very, very little attention to what I looked like. I think nerds just kind of drastically underweight the importance of appearance in life. So, I had horrible fashion sensitized by life. At times, I didn’t take great care of my skin. Like I was just not the most focused on my appearance. I’m like, now I know the data. I got to respect the data, like, it really does matter how you come across, what you look like. Let me see if I could use my nerdiness to improve my appearance.
And, I kind of came up with this three-pronged plan, which I call world’s nerdiest makeover. We’re first, using this app, FaceApp, this popular app, I created a whole bunch of AI versions of my face, which I include in the book, “Don’t Trust Your Gut.” It really is amazing. I don’t know if you guys have played around with FaceApp or a similar app. But, it really is amazing how differently you come across based on little things like whether you’re wearing glasses, beard, no beard, smile, no smile, different hairstyles.
Some of the things can even be extreme, you know, pink hair, grey hair, blonde hair, no hair. So, first I did this and then I used this survey program that my friend, Spencer Greenberg has built, Positly. And, I basically showed a whole bunch of people, all these different versions of myself, and said, “Which one is more competent?” And I didn’t have to actually change the way I looked at all. I just put the versions out there into the world just based on the AI.
And then, I found that there are these huge differences in how I come across. Then I did finally a multivariate regression analysis where I figured out what has the biggest impact in how I come across. And, basically, the two things by far were glasses and beard. I just look way more confident when I’m wearing glasses and when I have a beard. So, right now, I do not have glasses, which is why I asked not to have the video of this shown.
Meb: Well, I mean, I asked my wife and she said, she picked out the photo. She’s like, he looks like a coder. He looks like he knows what he’s doing with the right photo.
Seth: With glasses and beard?
Meb: Yeah, well, you know, it’s funny, I mean, going back to my very first book, I wrote in 2007, is my first experience was nervous. And the publisher sent over a couple of book covers, and I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, these are horrific. We can’t use these.” And I am a self-admitted horrific probably author, client. And so, I was like, I’m going to hold my own contest, and get some covers designed. And so, I was like, “I’ll do it on my own dime. And then we’ll let the audience decide which is the best.” And the publishers like, “Okay, whatever.”
So, I think we did it on 99 designs, got like four covers designed, and then did a poll. And this is me fully expecting my preferred cover to win and be justified, and mine came in last. And, theirs came in first. But, being the quant that I am, I said, “You know what? I’ll stick with the data.” And now looking back on and it’s like 10 times better cover I can’t believe I don’t know what I was thinking. But, I was open to the data.
Seth: That’s such a great story. And it’s, yeah, it gets to a point in my book that you do have to be willing to go where the data takes you. And these modern tools allow people to do things like you did with your cover, like I’m doing with my appearance, like other people do with all kinds of questions they might have. In this day and age, it’s trivially easy to get lots of content using either one of these new tools with AI or one of these marketplaces.
And, it’s trivially easy to survey a lot of people either, like, a random sample of people using Positly, which my friend created or Amazon Mechanical Turk or Survey Monkey or you have a readership then do a poll on Twitter or do something like that and get actual data.
And you’re frequently surprised by the data and the data again often comes back not as you would expect, and can lead to, I think, a lot better decisions.
Meb: Was that the case? Because I know at one point you wanted to name your first book, “How Big Is My Penis?” But ended up naming it, “Everybody Lies,” which by the way, I’m not so sure which would have outsold the other. You obviously had a bestselling book anyway, and listeners, we’ll talk a little bit about this. But, Seth’s book “Everybody Lies,” is one of my favorite books for the past five years. “Big Data, New Data, And What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.” It’s awesome. We’ll put it in the show note links. Tell us a little bit about that book. And I want to kind of thread the evolution from that time to the new one. But, why was it named, “How Big Is My Penis?” And why might it have been named that?
Seth: Yeah, so “Everybody Lies” is all about kind of these insights you get in people’s Google searches. So, people are really, really honest on Google, and they ask questions that they might not ask anybody else. They confess things they might not tell to anybody else. They use it as kind of a confessional. And one of the things I found in that data, which is maybe not so surprising is that men can show great insecurity about the size of their penises.
So, I think I estimate that men ask more questions about their penis than any other body part more than their lungs, liver, ears, nose, throat, and brain combined. Men ask more questions how to make their penis bigger than how to tune a guitar, change a tire or make an omelette. But then, one of the things I found in the data, which still blows me away, was one of the top questions men asked Google about their penis is, how big is my penis? Which is kind of a hilarious question to ask Google, because that’s not really a question that Google can answer. That’s something you have to find out using other methods offline, more traditional methods, I would say.
And, I loved this question so much, and I think you can kind of sense in “Everybody Lies,” I really do engage with lots of big questions in social science, about issues of moral philosophy, epistemology. But I think you also probably sense and now you could say if you disagree that I have a bit of a 13-year-old boy’s attitude towards life and get very excited by very silly things.
Meb: I mean, it’s profound. And it’s not surprising, in a way. I mean, some of the topics that you, as you read this book, listeners, I mean, if you see my desk, there’s like 20 pages I printed out and highlighted. And there’s so many times where you shake your head and you say, “Huh, that’s weird.” And you reference it at one point, it’s sort of like Google searches is a digital truth serum, where people feel unencumbered to express their very secret questions and beliefs. And, in some cases, you mentioned, not even questions. It’s like a diary, where it’s not even a question you type in, it’s more of like a statement.
Seth: Actually, in “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” I tried to move beyond Google Search data, because I’m just like, I feel like I mined that about as much as I could possibly mine it.
Meb: I mean, once you find out that the top Google search that starts, “My husband wants,” in India, is “wants me to breastfeed him.” I mean, where else can you go? You’ve reached the end of the internet.
Seth: Yeah, like, I didn’t want to just keep exploring that because I feel like I found the low-hanging fruit, and in “Don’t Trust Your Gut” I have one more where, as you said, people type complete sentences into Google. And another thing they type into Google, which I hadn’t realized in “Everybody Lies,” is they just report their actual penis size to Google. So, they go, my penis is 4 inches, my penis is 5 inches, my penis is 6 inches. And if you actually look at these reported penis sizes to Google, which again, why the hell are you telling Google that? What are they going to do with this information? You see a quasi-normal distribution centered around 5 inches, which I found very interesting.
Meb: So, funny.
Seth: Yeah. So, I once called my book, “How Big Is My Penis?” Kind of what Google searches reveal about human nature. And my publisher didn’t want that title, thinking that people might be too embarrassed to buy that. And I didn’t do market research on it. Maybe I should have. I’m still with you, that there’s a part of me that thinks that that was the better title.
Meb: Well, I mean, it’s tough. It’s like a slightly buttoned-down topic in the… you’ve got the intro from Steven Pinker and some big heavy hitter reviewers. The actual topics are not, I mean, the statistical techniques in big data you’re doing is pretty high level. So, I get the publisher. I get their understanding. Before we move on to the new book, I mean, what were some of your favorite takeaways from “Everyone Lies”? What stood out from that book for you writing it, where you’re like, this particular area or topic really hit home or surprised me?
Seth: Husbands want their wives to breastfeed them in India, and a little bit in Bangladesh, and seemingly nowhere else was just like, that blew my mind. Because, it’s amazing that something like this can develop in one part of the world, and not be talked about kind of just entirely under the surface, and be uncovered in anonymous and aggregate search data. So, kind of really interesting and kind of profound as far as how sexual tastes develop leads to interesting questions, or what happens in a society. What causes that preference to develop?
But, the only thing I don’t like about that fact is a lot of people use it to like make fun of people. And, I said it in one interview when I was writing the book, like, data from porn, and Google searches tell us that everybody’s weird thus nobody’s weird. So, like, I also have a whole section of Pornhub data in “Everybody Lies.” It’s not like you could look through that data and say, well, that’s the part of the world where people aren’t weird sexually. I don’t even know what that means.
Meb: It’s almost like a takeaway that in 2021, that the wide spectrum of behavior and fascination and interest is almost like a freeing sort of revelation for a lot of people. I’m talking specifically about sexual behavior. There’s a former podcast guest, evolutionary biologist who wrote a great book called “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation,” but it’s about species and their crazy sexual behaviors, which make anything you would come up with on Pornhub look just totally mundane by example.
But, once you come to that revelation, I feel like it should be freeing to a lot of people as opposed to the opposite, where it’s an area that historically has a lot of shame, and taboos, and everything else. Before we spend the entire episode on Pornhub, the first book had some interesting but also darker connotations too, about how people behave and in some of their beliefs that it could be dispiriting in some cases. But, in almost every case, I feel like it’s good to kind of shine the internet disinfectant light on things.
And, hopefully, people can improve and be different. Talk to me a little bit about that. But also, I’m curious, when you actually were in-house at Google for a little bit, did they give you access to any secret special datasets sort of ideas too, or what was that experience like, other than the amazing food court?
Seth: Not really, because I think they really want data to be public. So, I think all the data in the book, I try to say, here’s how you can find it externally using either Google ads or Google Trends. It’s a little complicated because Google sometimes changes how they present data. So, like, when I was doing the book, I mean, this is inside baseball. But, Google Ads gave exact values for how often particular searches were made in different locations.
And, since that time, they’ve changed it to very round numbers that are kind of basically uninformative, which is a little annoying for people who want to reproduce some of the things that I had done. But yeah, the darker stuff. So, the first study I actually did with Google data was on racism. And that was based on how frequently Americans make searches for the N-word. Although actually it’s gone down over time. But in the time period I was is looking, Americans would search the N-word as frequently as they were searching migraine, Lakers, economist, daily show kind of billions of times every year.
And these searches, initially I saw this, I said, okay, well, people are just making searches for rap lyrics. It’s kind of been long known that the N-word is used frequently in rap songs. Well, it turns out the version used in rap songs is the version that ends A almost always, not an “er”, and the version end “er” is usually included in Google searches looking for jokes, mocking, and humiliating African Americans.
And it turns out that the map, places that make more of these racist searches treat black people worse on many dimensions. So, I did a study showing that Barrack Obama, the first African American president, did far worse than previous white Democratic candidates in parts of the country that made unusually high numbers of racist searches on Google. And, I think it’s very clear that Obama lost far more votes from explicit racial animus in the United States than would have been picked up by other survey methods and places that make more racist search, African Americans have worse health outcomes. They’re paid less. Well, many, many negative outcomes.
So, that was kind of how I started this research. I did research in do-it-yourself abortions. So, it turns out, actually, anybody could do this at home, you go to Google Trends, and you just do self-induced abortion. It’s a topic on Google. And basically, the map of Google searches for self-induced abortion almost perfectly matches parts of the United States where it’s hardest to get a legal abortion, like, just an incredibly strong relationship.
And, I kind of looked at other evidence that yes, there probably are a large number of abortions in the United States that aren’t going through official methods these days. And, yeah, there is a lot of harsh stuff in that book, partly because I think the tool kind of lends itself to analysis of dark topics because people do turn to Google when they’re in trouble when they’re looking how to give themselves an abortion, or having racist thoughts, or suicidal. There’s some research on suicidal ideation, depression, mental health problems. And these topics are hard to research with other methods.
Also, if I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that I was kind of drawn to darker topics because I kind of I’m a little bit. One of those people, always wants to look where other people aren’t looking. The place you’re not necessarily supposed to go. And, I remember I started this as New York Times columns and my editor was an amazing guy, one of the early columns, he was like, “You might want to put a disclaimer that how unpleasant a task this was for you, Seth, so people don’t think you’re creepy.” And I think by, like, my sixth article on one of these unpleasant tasks, I don’t if anybody was really believing that it was so unpleasant for me.
Meb: You’re like, this isn’t unpleasant at all. I love this.
Seth: I’m unpleasantly looking at again at racism. I’m now unpleasantly looking into abortion or suicide or this or that.
Some people just have that personality, where they kind of like to look where you’re not maybe supposed to go. And I definitely maybe have that personality.
Meb: I mean, there’s obviously been an explosion in your field in the last decade, I mean, obviously the prior decade, getting popularized with popular topics like Moneyball, other popular topics like advertising, and how quant and analytics can influence everything from elections down to why I buy so much stuff off Instagram. And so, some of the insights that I think are particularly profound, and this is where we spend a lot of time, we’ll get to the finance and investing stuff.
My old man used to have a phrase, when I was doing something particularly stupid as a child or as an adult, he would say, “Look, you’re optimizing on all the wrong parameters.” And it sounded so egg, heady, and dismissive at the time, but it’s pretty profound insight. And you hit a couple of these topics, I’d love to just dive in on a couple. One that was super fascinating is the dating and sort of, like, what people look for in a life mate. And the resulting what parameters determine success in life mate, and how those don’t necessarily line up. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Seth: Yeah. Okay, so now we switch to “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” which is a book about how you can use data to make better life decisions. And there’s this explosion of data out there, as you said, on just all kinds of beige areas of life. And, there’s this recent research project led by Samantha Joel, but has 49 authors, where they create history’s largest dataset of romantic couples. They’ve measured everything you could think to measure about them, their demographics, their values, their sexual tastes, their interest and hobbies, their attractiveness, according to other people, just about everything.
And then, they measure kind of how happy people report being romantically. And so, you can kind of say, okay, what predicts romantic happiness. So, at the same time, you’ve had these other studies, this revolution or understanding of what people look for in mates, thanks to online dating sites that now a huge percent of our dating lives have moved online, it’s become trivially easy to kind of record what makes people click on and message other people in dating.
And comparing these two, kind of literatures, the Samantha Joel, “What Makes People Happy,” and the online dating, which is a whole bunch of researchers, what makes people pick someone else is really interesting. And the main point I took from it, my interpretation is that it’s incredibly easy to predict who you’re going to want to date, who you’re going to be attracted to who you’re going to message, who you’re going to go on dates with, it’s incredibly hard to predict who’s going to make you happy.
So, kind of a puncher way to say it, it’s trivially easy to predict who you’re going to click on, it’s incredibly difficult to predict who you’re going to click with. And I think one of the things you see is that people are drawn to all these, like, shiny traits. If you step back, you have to know it’s silly. There’s actually a paper that studied data from Hinge, huge online dating site. And they found that people are, I think 17% more likely to match with someone if they share their initials.
Meb: So, weird.
Seth: Yeah, just like, come on people.
Meb: We’ve done a few behavioral podcasts, one was recently with Richard Thaler. But we talked about… I mean, one of my favorite examples, and it’s so stupid, would ask people, they’d say write down the last four digits of your social security number or last three, I think it was and then estimate the year that Attila the Hun died. And long-term students recall historians that the people with low social security numbers wrote low years that Attila the Hun died and on average, and the people with high ones reported… It was like as the most nonsensical outcome for, but as the way our primate brains are wired, for whatever reason it can be hijacked, or just it’s a certain circuitry that puts you in this weird place like you just described.
Seth: Yeah. So, like that, you can kind of say it’s just pure silliness. Like, if you told most people, you’re, like, showing this bias towards people with your initials, they kind of step back and say, “Oh, that’s silly. I should give people who share my initials more of a chance, or not going on so many dates, extra dates with people who share my initials, because there’s very little chance that that’s going to lead to long-term relationship happiness.”
So, okay, that’s like pure silliness. But then, we’re also very drawn to shiny traits that may or may not lead to happiness. I think it would be an open question before you pored through the research of Joel and other researchers. So, not surprisingly, people are incredibly drawn to physical attractiveness.
That’s kind of the number one trait that people look for in online partners, explains 30% of male pickiness in online dating and 18% of female pickiness in online dating, heterosexual women are drawn to taller men, people are drawn to people who are similar to themselves on other dimensions, not just their initials, a whole host of dimensions, being creative, sharing a similar occupation, similar background, having gone to the same school, people are drawn to people with certain occupations that they find very interesting or alluring or lucrative. And, so lawyers, it turns out, are the sexiest men in online dating sites. I didn’t know this.
Meb: That’s a surprise. What’s your observational guess as to why that is?
Seth: The other thing is it’s controlling for income. So, it’s not just that lawyers themselves. It’s not just because lawyers tend to make a lot of money. I don’t know, because the other ones if you look at that, the chart which is from work by … and (Dan) Ariely The other ones are like people who tend to help other people. So, you have law enforcement, firefighters are really high, military people and health professionals.
And then there’s lawyers who many times are kind of made fun of for being kind of greedy, and shady, and not necessarily good for society. So, it’s a little bit of hard to explain outliers. Maybe it’s one of those things like “Law and Order” was such a popular show. I don’t know. I’d be interesting to like, study how these preferences change as different TV shows wax and wane in popularity.
Meb: All right, you heard that there. That could be your next study. I mean, you had the great description of, I recall very vividly despite growing up in Denver, I was obviously a big Broncos fan, you were a big Knicks in Ewing, but Denver didn’t have a baseball team. So, I was a huge Mets fan, but I would have been like eight years old when that happened. So, going back to your chart about when people came to like certain sports and it’d be really interesting to see like peak popularity of certain shows, it’s interesting.
Seth: So, did you become a Rockies fan?
Meb: I did. Although, the transition for me has been odd because I used to be a huge baseball fan. We used to have season tickets to all the Rockies games right when they came out and they kind of exploded on the scene with this really fun team for the first 5, 10 years, and then I’m sort of, like, slowly turning into, like, a Jets, or organization that just like is totally irrelevant. Usually. So, it’s frustrating. But the Galarraga, Bichette days, man, I tell you, they were fun.
Seth: Was Todd Helton that year or that was a little bit later?
Meb: Yeah, he was on the tail end of it. But they used to be when they first came out. They were in mile high. So, they had a football stadium worth of people. So, it’s just crazy going anyway.
Seth: Well, then, as I talked about, “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” being a sports fan seems to be just a mistake from happiness perspective.
Meb: Right. Oh, that’s such a good example. Look, I want to touch on one or two more things. I don’t want to give away everything in your book because it’s so loaded with ideas and insights.
Seth: But I just want to follow up that all these traits that people look for in dating, just don’t make people happy. There’s now clear evidence that if you look at 11,000 couples, those who end up with hot people are no happier than those who ended up with less hot people. Those who ended up with lawyers don’t report being happy to those who ended up with accountants who maybe are considered less attractive in the dating market.
Women who end up with taller males don’t report being happy. So, I think it goes to your dad’s point, that there’s clear evidence now that there’s a drastic disconnect between what people are optimizing for in dating and what maybe they should be optimizing for if they really wanted to be happy in the long term.
Meb: I liked your insight where you’re like, you should go where the slightly not out of favor, maybe that’s the wrong description. But, look for the undervalued, you know, participants that are probably not getting as many shots on goal. I’m a quant value investor. So, this speaks right to my heart. So, tall girls, there you go. That’s a big one. Look for the tall girls.
Seth: I’m actually living that a little bit because my current girlfriend is 5 foot 10.
Meb: She’s going to probably listen to this and be like, dude, you selected me because of an algorithm. This is bullshit.
Seth: But she’s also attractive, which I say not to focus on.
Meb: There you go. Yeah. Well, you know, it’s funny, because I mean, I think we’re in this golden age of insights. And the challenge so much in the other areas you talk about that we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast before in various formats is this concept of happiness, and kind of what people spend their time doing.
There’s an old phrase called, like, people always complain about not having time. And the phrase is something along the lines of show me your check book and show me your calendar, I’ll show you what you really care about. And so, where people spend time and what they do, doesn’t really line up with what actually equates to happiness. Is that a reasonable description of some of your work? And, I’d love to hear some more about it.
Seth: Yeah, for sure. Well, this isn’t my research. This is again, other people’s research that I’m writing about, but definitely, there’s just all this work now, thanks to smartphones, kind of this new digital era where they’re pinging people at different times of the day and saying what are you doing and how happy you are? And we’re kind of seeing, okay, well, what actually makes people happy?
And, my interpretation of all this research is basically the things that make people happy, aren’t that complicated. So, there are studies that being in nature really makes people happy, being near water really makes people happy. That was actually a little surprising to me. Being with friend’s so important. Like, people are really, really happy when they’re having sex, like, okay, no surprise there.
Seth: Yeah. And then people are really miserable when they’re working. So, it’s like, it’s not rocket science. But then, you look at modern society and we’re just so horrible at filling our days doing the things that make people happy. So, this actually was my own study where I said, okay, they’ve done this, these researchers have found, these are the activities that make people happy. Let me compare, there’s actual also data from American Time Use Survey on how people spend their days.
What percent of the day are people spending doing things kind of in the activity regions that make people happy? And, the answer is a very small percent of the day, that basically the highest happy activities, I think we spend about two hours a day on and the least happy activities, we spend almost 17 hours a day on, and the beam activity about five hours a day. And if anything, this has gotten worse, over time according to the American Time Use Survey.
The American Time Use Survey started in 2003, moved to 2019. And over time, if anything, we’re spending more time doing activities that don’t make people happy. So, sometimes, like, I just kind of want to present the data to people so that you kind of just keep in mind. In some ways, it’s somewhat similar to romance. There are so many areas where, like, the media or our own brains are just constantly, like, tricking us, like, trapping us away from focusing on what’s really important. Like, it can be humorous at times.
Like I tried to write the book in kind of a funny way, like, look at us silly people. But it’s also kind of profoundly sad because it’s not that hard. The things that make people happy aren’t that hard to achieve. It’s not that difficult to spend more time in nature. It’s not that difficult to have sex, it may be difficult to have sex with a supermodel but it’s not horribly difficult to get some romantic partner or some romance in your life. It’s not hard for most people to make at least some friends. And if you have friends, you can spend time with your friends. It’s not that hard to go on hikes. It’s not that hard to go walk. It’s not that hard to garden, which makes people happy.
Like, all these things, just they’re not that hard but we spend so little time doing them. So, I was kind of hoping that people would kind of read this book, look at some of this research. And, hopefully, turn to this book again, when you’re going through tough times. Like, ask yourself if you’re not happy, are you doing the things that scientists have found to make people happy? And, my guess is that a large percent of the people who answer no to, “Are you happy?” aren’t spending a large portion of their day doing the types of things that make people happy.
Meb: I’ve made a very intentional concerted effort, particularly over the last five years to try to implement this. And I always, I mean, looking at this laundry list of terrible things that make people unhappy, obviously commuting. I mean, I tell my co-workers I’m like, “Look, you’re an adult, I’m not going to judge you. But, if you’re commuting an hour each way, that’s up there with, like, pure misery.”
So, reduce meetings, that’s a big one. Obviously, being sick in bed, the working one, which is a hard negative, I think you mentioned this in the book. It’s like an old Hemingway quote. I think it’s Hemingway, I’ll have to look this up. But he had some advice. He’s like, “Only work with people you love,” which is easy advice, but the takeaway is that you say in your book, it’s, like, if you work with people you like, or your friends, it’s a totally different outcome than if you don’t.
But, there’s two big ones of the modern age which is obviously browsing the internet and texting, social media, which are then going to prove to be more and more addictive and misery-inducing. So I’ve turned off every single notification on my phone which has been a huge positive. I deleted a bunch of the apps and don’t regret it at all in any way. There’s two I disagree with though.
Meb: No. Well, no, sleeping, how can sleeping be so low? I was, like, everyone I know loves to sleep. Why is sleeping such a low… Maybe they’re not getting enough sleep.
Seth: That’s a little bit of quirk of the Mappiness project where they put together sleeping, resting and relaxing. So, it may be that resting or relaxing could mean, like, lying on the couch doing nothing. And that’s kind of grouped in with sleeping, and I think some of these you shouldn’t take too literally. I just kind of wanted to put the whole chart there. And then the other thing… So, I did my own study with Spencer Greenberg on this.
So, Mappiness has produced, which was started in part by George McCarran, this brilliant scientist. So, Mappiness has produced this chart of kind of what activities make people happy. Let’s just survey people and see if they can guess what make people happy. And, again, like, the happiness things, when you step back and think of them, they’re not rocket science. So, again, you would have guessed that sex makes people happier than being sick in the bed, commuting, whether you would have guessed it, certainly that’s gotten a lot of attention as an unhappy activity over the years.
So, I think it didn’t shock people so much. But, there were some definite mis-assessments. And, I think one of the things was that people seem to exaggerate. I think there’s a strong tendency to exaggerate the value of passive activities and to not appreciate the value of active activities. So, some of the things that are very high in the list of making people happy when you actually ask people at the moment they’re doing it, how happy are you? Are things that take a little energy to get up and do, obviously, a great example of that is sports, running, exercise, singing, performing, socializing, bird-watching, nature-watching, exhibition, museum library.
Meb: But it’s funny, you know. I mean, all 10 of these, the top 10 are some form of physical activity or experience across the board. And, I think everyone starts to understand that. And, the challenge for a lot of people too, is if you look at, there’s a good book by another social psychologist called, “Happy Money,” but it’s this concept of like, a lot of people spend so much time focusing on how to make money. But then they also don’t spend it in a way that really optimizes for happiness either.
And so, a great example for me is, I said the other day, 100% of the time probably when I go surfing and I’m terrible, I love it. And I’m like, I’m so happy afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted going. But still, if you have me at the morning, early in the morning with a coffee and I look outside, I’m like, “It looks a little cloudy, or the waves are a little small.” And for whatever reason that just initial inertia tends to be like the hindrance, I don’t know.
Seth: Yeah, and I would say that happiness science basically says that your experience is fairly universal, that you have to get over that inertia. You have to get over that feeling of “uh” to do things if you want to be happy. And it’s kind of, I mean, the book called “Don’t Trust Your Gut.” And I think one of the ways our gut leaves us astray, is it’s constantly tricking us to lie down and do nothing and sit on our couch and get on social media or watch TV. And, it’s not going to make you happy. You’re being tricked. And just about every time by that instinct.
Meb: Yeah, part of it is the solution. And one reason why I’m a quant in our world is you got to institute the guardrails and sort of rules that push you or nudge you in the right direction as others describe, I think, and to kind of hack things in the right way. I mean, it’s going to be fun to see, in the coming years, people sort of build out some of these systems to push people in the right direction.
Obviously, you can see it being used for nefarious purposes too, everywhere. And one of the surprises in the book for me was talking about, and if you look back to the old, like when friends influence people, and then on your description of what works for salespeople. Do you recall that? Can you tell the listeners what that was?
Seth: Yeah, it was this awesome study where they studied, I think, more than 60,000, Amazon Live videos. I didn’t know what Amazon Live was. But, it’s basically a way for people to sell things by video, kind of pitch their product, and sell it. And they use deep learning and artificial intelligence to basically code everybody’s emotion when they’re selling something. So, are they happy, angry, sad, surprised?
And then, they did a regression analysis, they had data on how much they actually sold. And they found that the emotion the person shows is highly predictive of how much they sell, but maybe not in the way you might have guessed. So, one thing that wasn’t surprising is that people that are angry or sad, sell much less product, but one thing that was, at least to me very surprising, it sounds like to you surprising is that showing joy or surprise leads to less sales.
That basically the best way to sell a product is to be more neutral, to show a poker face, that if you’re kind of really excited about what you’re selling, maybe this interpretation, people don’t trust you. And these effects are large, that kind of not smiling when you’re selling something can be twice as important as offering free shipping in improving your sales.
Meb: That’s crazy. Well, I wonder if… Do you think about…? I love, like, brainstorming, like, in retrospect, the effects, I wonder if it, there’s an element that if someone is smiling, it’s almost, like, an air of insincerity, where either they know they’re selling you something or they’re just, like, too happy to be doing it. I don’t know.
Seth: That’s kind of was my interpretation, you could imagine can be a little shady, like, the slimy car salesperson that’s too excited, too joyous, too happy. But, I think a lot of these studies, the ways I kind of use them is, I don’t read this study and say I’m never going to smile again when I’m trying to sell something. I just try to use Bayes’ rule, which is, you’re kind of always adjusting your view of the world based on new information.
So, before I saw this study, I may have said that I’m going to smile 95% of the time when I’m selling something, that’s the best way to sell something. And now after reading this study, I’m not 100% convinced that I should never smile. I think a lot of people have told me through the years that they like when I smile, that I seem very engaged and excited by the material.
But, I was surprised enough by the result that I’m going to just adjust, smiling down a little bit. And keep in mind, you do risk turning people off. Actually, when I did the study on what makes me look best, I also found that smiling didn’t improve how competent I looked at all, which surprised me because I assumed that if you smile, people will like you more. Maybe that’s a myth.
Meb: I could go on and on. I don’t want to spoil the book. Listeners, you got to buy, “Everybody Lies” aka “How Big Is Your Penis?” and the new book, “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” which is like preaching to my choir. We spend a lot of time talking about that in the financial world. We didn’t even get into some of my favorite financial parts of your book. The one section about rich people own the age of entrepreneurs, listeners, you’re going to have to buy the book to figure it out. So, go pre-order it on Amazon.
Seth, we’re going to wind down. We normally ask people what their most memorable investment is. But I want to ask you as a big sports fan, what was your most memorable sports memory, growing up and well to the present as an adult as well, is there anything that sticks out?
Seth: Game two of the wildcard series between the Yankees and the Mariners. I say “Everybody Lies.” I’m a huge Mets fan and not a Yankees fan. That’s a little misleading in that I root for all the New York sports teams. I’m definitely much more of a Mets fan. And the Mets was so bad for so long. My dad actually was initially a Mets fan and one day he switched to Yankees. And he’s just like, “Son, life’s too short to root for a shitty team.”
Meb: I love that story.
Seth: Yeah. So it was basically this game two Yankees, Mariners, 1995. I think it went 15 innings. And, it ended with two-run home run by Jimmy Leyritz. And I was at the game with my dad, left-field bleachers, worst seats in the House, we stayed the entire game. My dad let me stay even though I had school in the morning, I think it ended well past midnight. It was raining at the end of the game. It was one of those games where every time the Yankees got up at-bat, the entire bleachers would stand for the entire inning.
It was, like, totally insane and but ended it, Jimmy Leyritz hits this two-run home run, and people are just going insane, throwing popcorn, throwing beer, hugging each other, high-fiving each other, then we’re singing Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. I actually wrote my college essay about that game, because it had such an impression on me. It was the first playoff game I’d ever been to.
It was one of those experiences. Again, I’m more of a Mets fan. And some people think it’s sacrilegious to root for the Yankees as well. But, I was talking about this to my girlfriend recently, like, there are some experiences in childhood, where you just experience an event or a place, and you’re just like, “I did not even imagine that something that amazing existed.” Like, I didn’t know something like a playoff game in person was, like, a possibility in life.
I guess that point, 16, 17 years old, you kind of have your map of the world and kind of on the right tail of like best things in life are, like, a great TV show, or a great movie, or a great song or a great time with your friends or whatever. And at that point, there was definitely no sex in the picture for me. And for many years later, there wasn’t a sex in the picture of me either. It took me many years to discover that part of life.
But, then, like, you have, okay, that’s, like, the pinnacle of life and then you’re just like, “Oh my God, a 15 inning playoff game,” where you’re, like, standing almost the entire game and hugging people and throwing beer and popcorn and screaming and singing. It’s just like, wow, like, that’s just amazing. And since then, I’ve been to events like that. It’s just such a big part of my life. Just someone like me, maybe you as well. Like, just the energy of all these events is just, like, unmatched and so amazing.
Meb: Yeah, I remember we went to the Dodgers game a few years ago where it was like, I think 18 or 19 innings. They like shut off all concessions, reopened them because it was lasting so long. And we were, and I was hoping it would go 21 so we could have three 7th inning stretches because they did one on the 14th inning too. But what’s funny about sports I had a long childhood of disappointment followed by eventual redemption as a Broncos fan. So, I’m cheering for you on the next side that they can write the ship eventually back to their glory days. We’ll see.
Seth: I remember actually. I’m a big Jets fan. So, I remember a Broncos, Jets conference championship game one of the rare years the Jets were good, but you guys had us that game.
Meb: They brought it up in the broadcast last weekend so.
Seth: Oh, yeah, yeah. And you guys also killed us this weekend.
Meb: Well, we’ve had a fallow period as well for a while, post Payton. Seth, I could talk to you all day, where do people go in the meantime, besides buying your books? Do you do any sort of publishing, writing, you got a blog, anything? Where can people find you?
Seth: Probably on Twitter is the best. So I don’t use it as much as people want me to use it. But it’s @SethS_D on Twitter is probably the best place to find me.
Meb: Awesome, man. Listeners, check out the books. We’ll have to have you back on as the world reopens. Seth, thanks so much for joining us today.
Seth: Thanks so much. It was a lot of fun.
Meb: Podcast listeners, we’ll post show notes to today’s conversation at mebfaber.com/podcast. If you love the show, if you hate it, shoot us feedback at email@example.com. We love to read the reviews please review us on iTunes and subscribe to the show anywhere good podcasts are found. Thanks for listening, friends, and good investing.