Suicide rates and artistic tastes by state: Google as a window to the soul.

If you have been troubled by anything in this article, or feel like you might need help with problems in your own life, please seek assistance. Most countries have a mental health or suicide hotline. You can reach the American suicide hotline on 1–800–273–8255. You can find the appropriate hotline for your country here.

I’ve been using Google trends data a lot to explore different interrelations and connections, but there’s always a bit of a mystery about how well these trends actually reflect anything in the real world. Here’s some (unfortunately tragic) evidence that Google searches reflect something of real world importance. A lot of different forms of artistic taste as measured by Google searches correlate with suicide rates in US states. This is especially true of ‘darker’ tastes, but seems to be true even of some styles and genres one wouldn’t normally consider particularly dark.

Now it’s always important to be clear that correlation does not equal causation, but especially in this case I want to reiterate the point. Just because states with higher suicide rates prefer certain genres doesn’t mean those genres cause suicide. People suffering from depression and emotional distress often turn to art with darker themes because they find comfort in having their own internal themes reflected in the experiences of others, showcased in art. It can be a reminder that one is not alone. Thus interest in these forms of art might actually be a coping mechanism reducing suicide rates among those otherwise vulnerable. Also, of course, the vast majority of people who enjoy art which touches on darker themes aren’t in any danger of committing suicide.

So why care?:

  1. It suggests the possibility of creating an index of subjective well-being for different geographical areas using artistic tastes measured using Google data, or other quantitative metrics (record or book sales for example).
  2. It shows that Google trends data has relationships, sometimes very strong relationships, with statistics that matter.

Suicide is number of suicides out of 10,000 population. The dots represent US States.

Some “dark” artistic interests well correlated with suicide:

Searches for Post-Apocalyptic fiction correlate extremely well with suicide: R=.85, R²=.72

Searches for emo music correlate extremely well with suicide:

R=.75, R²=.57

There is a strong correlation between searches for information and media about vampires and suicide rate;

R=.59 R²=.355

There is a strong correlation between searches for heavy metal music and suicide rate:

R=.62 R²=.39

The above correlations are all massively significant, well below the P=0.001 level.

Other genres aren’t obviously ‘dark’ but still have a moderate correlation with suicide- albeit weaker than the overtly dark genres. For example, there is a moderate correlation between searches for science-fiction and suicide:

There’s even a very weak relationship between interest in Rock music and suicide, though it’s only barely statistically significant, 1950’s moralists eat-your-heart-out. R=.29 R²=.088, p=.035.

It’s not just an art or music thing in general, for example, pop music has no significant relationship, positive or negative, with suicide:

Nor does interest in fiction in general have a statistically significant relationship with suicide:

Some genres are actually associated with the opposite trend, such as romance films:

What the next steps in this research look like:

  1. See how well this holds up cross-culturally across OECD countries.
  2. Measure against other objective and subjective measures of well-being apart from suicide.
  3. Factor analyse artistic tastes to extract a ‘dark’ factor.
  4. Develop this into a metric for measuring well-being that can be used in situations where other methods would be inappropriate- e.g., in the case of suicide, where there are very different levels of funding for suicide prevention programs.

If anyone wants to steal this idea, please do! Let me know how it goes.

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