Germany is the world’s most forward-thinking country, and Pakistan is its least, according to a new report by researchers in the United Kingdom, which bases its assessment on Google searches.
Tobias Preis and Helen Susannah Moat of the Warwick Business School and University College London compiled their Future-Orientation Index by comparing how often Internet users in 45 countries Googled the years “2011” and “2013” in 2012. This year, Germany won the top spot, pushing out the U.K.; the United States ranked 11th, up from 15th last year.
According to Preis and Moat, future-orientation correlates strongly to GDP-per-capita, a measure of economic wealth.
"Our Future Orientation Index reflects international differences in attention to the future and the past," Moat told NPR. "A greater focus on the future when making decisions may support economic success."
As Bernhard Warner points out in Bloomberg Businessweek, this matches conventional thinking on topics such as consumer spending: “When the economy is humming along, it is easier to be optimistic – to plan vacations, buy season tickets, investigate investments, etc.”
But while future-orientation may correlate to economic strength, it doesn’t predict it – at least not in the short term. Japan, for instance, ranked ninth on the index in 2011, and third in 2012. Yet GDP growth in that country has been tepid both years, a mere 2.2 percent, according to the CIA's World Fact Book.
China, on the other hand, slid sharply in the rankings – from 31st to 41st place. That would theoretically seem to indicate a lack of future-interest, or tougher economic times. But the Chinese economy boomed in 2012, outpacing much of the Western world.
There are a few other economic outliers in this year’s index. While most countries’ GDP-per-capita and future-orientation correlate very closely, Brazil and South Korea’s do not. Brazil, where a fifth of citizens live in poverty, ranks above the U.S. And highly developed South Korea, with its skyscrapers and Gangham District, falls only slightly above Nigeria – where the GDP-per-capita is less than $3,000.
Researchers attribute those aberrations to the glitches of Google data, which necessarily reflects the momentary Internet fads and fascinations of its time. Germany, for instance, is preparing for national elections in 2013. (The search term “wahl,” or election, climbed steadily in 2012.) In 2011, when the U.K. held the top spot, many Britons were bracing for the 2012 London Olympics.
Which brings us back to that big question: What does it all mean? While it might be nice to grasp at big economic conclusions, the report notes that its theories are just that. We don’t conclusively know how future-orientation in Google searched contributes to the economy -- or vice versa.
We do know, however, that Germans have a very Google-able events calendar this year.