Search Data, Mixed With Time, Takes Nation's Pulse

People increasingly rely on Internet data to plan for the future and search for information on past events, giving researchers insights into human interests and behavior. A PLOS One study found that using aggregate search engine query data from services such as Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia and Flickr can take the psychological pulse of a nation. Understanding the human mind can make search engine practitioners better marketers.

The research suggests that the way individuals view time can determine economic success and spending habits. In this study, researchers used aggregate Internet data to build a time perspective and time horizon model, testing the insights against a nation's per-capita gross domestic product. The results show that nations with higher per-capita GDP are more focused on the future and less on the past; and when they do focus on the past, how far in the past.

To better understand time perspective, psychologist Philip Zimbardo during a TED talk in 2009 describes how a human's happiness is rooted in time. It's how humans "calibrate" an outlook on life and take the first steps in improving their lives. He describes time perspective as how individuals divide the flow of human experience into time zones or categories, automatically and unconsciously.

The study addresses the question whether a nation's higher per-capita GDP links directly to a nation's greater focus on the future, a lesser focus on the past, or both? Researchers also examine the degree to which individuals searching for near, rather than more distant events, influence behavior.

Psychological studies on time perspective show that if an individual considers events in the distant future more often than those in the near future, this person tends to have impulsive behavior less frequently. Various impulsive behaviors are associated with the extent to which an individual discounts consequences of his or her decisions in the distant future more than consequences in the near future.

Yes, a bit complicated, but telling when it comes to the buying habits of consumers. The research using Internet data relies on four measures of time-perspective: future focus, past focus, future time-horizon and past time-horizon. Future focus, future time-horizon and past time-horizon are predicted to have a positive relationship with per-capita GDP, whereas past focus is predicted to have a negative.

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