Search Engines Make it Hard to Know What You Know

Access to information makes it hard to remember what information you remember. Bride

The internet, not apps or digital compasses, put the “smart” in “smartphone.” But they don’t necessarily put the “smart” in “smart person.” Now that Google searches put every single human one Boolean operation away from an answer, we’re collectively losing our ability to assess our own intelligence. In a series of online experiments, a team of Yale University researchers believe they’ve found evidence that the internet inflates our intellectual self perception.

Incidentally, anecdotal evidence supports this conclusion.

To reach their conclusion (and confirm their suspicions), the authors of the study asked nearly 200 people to explain a phenomenon in science, weather, and human health. Some of the subjects had access to the internet to look up the answer to a specific query, such as “How does a zipper work?” then had to answer questions in unrelated domains. All answers were self-rated for quality, and those who had access to the internet rated their answers as more knowledgeable across the board. They weren’t. “When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet,”

As the researchers explain in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:

Searching for answers online leads to an illusion such that externally accessible information is conflated with knowledge “in the head” (Experiment 1a and b). This holds true even when controlling for time, content, and search autonomy during the task (Experiment 1c). Furthermore, participants who used the Internet to access explanations expected to have increased brain activity [measured as MRI], corresponding to higher quality explanations, while answering unrelated questions (Experiment 2a). This effect is not driven by a misinterpretation of the dependent measure (Experiment 2b) or general overconfidence (Experiment 3) and is driven by querying Internet search engines (Experiment 4a-c).
In many ways, our minds treat the Internet as a transactive memory partner, broadening the scope of knowledge to which we have access. The results of these experiments suggest that searching the Internet may cause a systematic failure to recognize the extent to which we rely on outsourced knowledge. Searching for explanations on the Internet inflates self-assessed knowledge in unrelated domains.

Fisher worries that an inflated intellectual ego could be dangerous. That’s a fair concern (see: Vizzini’s intellectually poisonous demise, insert political candidate of your choice here). But if a smartphone is always available, at what point does Googling something simply become a part of a person’s thought process? Our brains may not hold the information we think it does, but the future is shaping up to be a big Wi-Fi hotspot. Yeah, we’re cocky when we can explain how a zipper works, but if we can look it up on the internet, we’re also right.

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