A recent article at Slate described blogger Renee DiResta’s idea of looking at what people think of different states by typing the question beginning “Why is [state] so” into Google and checking what the top autocomplete search suggestions were. I thought it might be fun to try this with religions.
I used pretty much the same approach as DiResta: I typed “Why are [religion members] so” into Google and checked the autocomplete search suggestions. Google gave me up to ten suggestions per religion. The number varied, though, with some religions (e.g., Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Seventh-day Adventists) turning up no autocomplete suggestions at all. In some cases, the same result appeared more than once for the same religion because of alternative spellings (for example, judgmental and judgemental) or suggested search terms in addition to the key adjective (for example, “Why are Buddhists so happy” and “Why are Buddhists so happy picture”). In the lists below, I’ve gone ahead and listed the duplicates but dropped the extra search terms and the alternative spellings.
To summarize the autocomplete suggestions, I first rated each one as positive (+1), neutral (0), or negative (-1). When you look at the lists of suggestions, you’ll see that this wasn’t as difficult or arbitrary as it might sound. Most suggestions were either clearly positive or clearly negative. In the lists below, I’ve put words I counted as positive in blue and words I counted as negative in red. The neutral ones are in plain old black.
After rating the suggestions, I weighted them according to their order, with the first receiving 10 points, the second 9, and so on down to the last (if it was present) receiving 1 point. I multiplied the rating by the weight for each suggestion. If the first suggestion was positive, for example, this counted as a +10. If the second and third were negative, they counted as -9 and -8. Finally, I added up the products of the ratings and weights to give an overall score for how positive or negative the suggestions were for a particular religion.
Okay, after all that, you probably want me to just get to the lists already. I’ll start with Mormons and then skip around to other religious groups that I thought might be interesting to check.
Mormons (score: +20)
nice, successful, creepy, rich, happy, interested in genealogy, judgmental, annoying, wealthy, pretty
Wow! This looks way more positive than I would have guessed. We’re nice and successful and even pretty? Let’s look next at some other religions that we sometimes get lumped with and called cults.
Jehovah’s Witnesses (score: -34)
annoying, weird, stupid, strict, soliciting, solicitors
Scientologists (score: -45)
weird, secretive, stupid, crazy, dumb, defensive
There’s a surprisingly large gap between them and us: there’s not one positive word on either list. Let’s try some more mainstream Christian religions.
Catholics (score: -54)
weird, arrogant, strict, judgmental, ignorant, crazy, judgmental, guilty, mean
Ouch! Only the fact that there’s no suggestion #10 keeps Catholics from getting a perfect negative score. I guess Romney probably wasn’t aware of this when he chose Ryan as his running mate.
Baptists (score: -40)
hateful, judgmental, stupid, annoying, narrow-minded
Lutherans (score: -9)
Pentecostals (score: -24)
crazy, judgmental, happy, arrogant, weird
Finally, a positive word!
Evangelicals (score: -43)
hateful, annoying, stupid, crazy, pro-Israel, mean, nasty
Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians: no autocomplete suggestions
What happens if we look at Christians generally?
Christians (score: -26)
arrogant, mean, judgmental, nice, happy, fat, weird, annoying
Christians are fat? I hadn’t heard that one. Let’s look beyond Christianity to other major religions.
Jews (score: -6)
cheap, smart, rich, greedy, rude, liberal, arrogant, funny, powerful, mean
Buddhists (score: 34)
happy, happy, selfish, happy, peaceful, happy, nice, happy, annoying
The Buddhists bump Mormons down to #2. It’s just because they’re so gosh darned happy! Freakin’ Buddhists!
Hindus (score: -7)
cheap, rich, smart, afraid of Muslims, upset with Avatar, rude, ugly, stupid, dirty
Muslims (score: -33)
fanatical, crazy, sexist, backwards, sensitive to criticism, nice, smart, intolerant, rich, annoying
This is a pretty negative list, but I’m pleasantly surprised that there are a few positive suggestions in there too. Let’s try checking religious people generally.
Religious people (score: -55)
stupid, hateful, ignorant, annoying, arrogant, intolerant, gullible, stubborn, crazy, closed minded
Impressive! A perfect negative score. To be fair, let’s check the atheists too.
Atheists (score: -51)
angry, angry, arrogant, mean to Christians, mean, rude, hated, smug, bitter, annoying
Pretty much the same level of negative suggestions. I also tried Agnostics, but got no autocomplete suggestions.
Looking at all the suggestions, I have to say that I am shocked at how positively this study suggests people view Mormons. I remember the Pew survey of Americans done last fall that found that more people thought of a negative word than a positive word when asked for a one-word description of the Mormon religion. Before checking, I thought this approach would yield a result something like that study did. Maybe this means people actually are viewing Mormons in a more positive light, but it seems more likely that the difference is simply evidence that this method (if you can even call it that) isn’t capturing anything meaningful.
On that topic, I know there are a bunch of reasons to mistrust the results. Some are related to the question stem. One problem is that “Why are [religion members] so” is leading. It leads more obviously toward a negative word than a positive one. I wonder if it also might not be skewed to favor religions that English-speaking Google users know less about. Perhaps for such religions, people are more likely to complete the question stem with a positive word because they’re genuinely curious. For the better known religions, perhaps people are more venting their frustration than asking genuine questions they want answered. Another possible problem with the question stem is that it was arbitrarily chosen. People likely also search for information about religions using many other question forms (“Why are [religion members]”, “Why do [religion members]”, etc.).
You could also argue that the autocomplete suggestions are just spitting back stereotypes: Catholics are guilty, Buddhists are happy, and Jews are cheap. This appears to be true in some cases, but for Mormons, are these really common stereotypes? Mormons are pretty?
The scoring method is also arbitrary. You could argue that the weights shouldn’t decline linearly as you go through the list. Google is also increasingly customizing results depending on where you are when you search and what you’ve searched for in the past. It may be that my results are unique to me.
I’d love to hear your interpretations or criticisms or results of your replications if you want to try this with Google yourself.