Friday, 30 October 2015

Googling stuff can cause us to overestimate our own knowledge

By guest blogger Simon Oxenham

The internet has changed the way we do many things, from organising a get-together to looking up a recipe. Tasks that little over a decade ago would have involved dozens of phone calls or a trip to the library, can now be completed in a heartbeat. There has been much animated debate about the potential relative harms or benefits of all this, but convincing evidence has not been forthcoming. Now a new study of 119 men and 83 women recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has found that after accessing information on the internet, people can experience an illusion of knowledge. Even if the internet hasn't necessarily changed the way we think, it seems it does have the potential to change our perceptions of what we think we know.

The researchers, led by Matthew Fisher at Yale University, asked participants to use the internet to find the answers to a series of questions such as “why are there more women than men?” and “why are there dimples on a golf ball?” In the control group, participants were asked to answer the same questions without using the internet to help them. All the participants were then asked how confident they were that, without using the internet, they could answer unrelated questions in six domains: weather, science, American history, food, health treatments, and the human body. The result was that the participants who had used the internet to search for answers were more likely to overestimate their own internal knowledge in unrelated areas.

A recurring problem with claims about the potential harms of new technologies is that the criticisms are typically indistinguishable from criticisms of earlier technologies. The same claims that are now being made of the internet were once made of the printing press, and of the pen before that. Socrates once spoke of how the invention of writing would destroy our ability to remember, a critique that we now know is somewhat preposterous. We should be wary therefore that this new finding about the internet creating an illusion of knowledge might not be specific to the internet at all.

However, thankfully, the researchers went to great lengths to attempt to isolate the independent variable of internet search from other forms of information. For example, the same effect was not found when the participants were simply presented with information that contained the answers to the questions, even if that content was precisely the same as that found online by the internet search group. The researchers achieved this by repeating the experiment with new participants and instructing some of them to search for specific resources, for example: “Please search for the page with this information,” while the control participants were simply shown the text from the same websites. This finding strongly suggests it was the activity of searching the web, rather than merely having access to external reference information, that led to the illusion of knowledge. Bizarrely, this remained true even if the search engine was rigged to turn up no useful results whatsoever.

Despite all of these controls, the researchers do concede that: “This illusion of knowledge might well be found for sources other than the Internet: for example, an expert librarian may experience a similar illusion when accessing a reference Rolodex [a card-based system for keeping records]”. But they still think there’s something special about the internet. For example, they ponder whether the internet’s “unique accessibility, speed, and expertise cause us to lose track of our reliance upon it”. Arguably, the steps between earlier technologies such as the pen and the printing press were comparatively small compared to the leap that has occurred in our lifetimes. Even for information that with a little effort we can recall, it is sometimes simply easier and faster to just ask Google. After all, Google doesn’t make mistakes – at least it doesn’t with anywhere near the frequency of human memory, which decades of psychological research has demonstrated is fallible in the extreme.

The main takeaway message of this research is that when we’re called on to provide information without the internet’s help, we need to be aware that we might possess a false sense of security. The most obvious example of how we should apply this is in the run up to a school or university examination. If we only ever prepare for examinations with the internet on hand and don’t take closed book mock tests without the internet’s help, we might not realise until it is too late that information that we think is in our heads actually isn’t.

This new research builds on another internet-related finding that’s been dubbed “The Google Effect”: people are more likely to forget information if they are told it has been saved by a computer. There is however no evidence that in practice this is a bad thing, as we can assume that the cognitive capacity saved by not having to memorise easily accessible information can be put to good use elsewhere. We can never know everything, but we can always increase our analytic abilities. It has even been suggested by the head of the British school exam board OCR, that it is “inevitable” that students will eventually be allowed to use Google in exams, as memorising facts is no longer viewed as an important skill.

In an age where we all carry portals to lightening fast internet in our pockets, relying on the web to remember things for us need not be a problem. But this new study shows it’s worth remembering that this knowledge isn’t necessarily really inside our heads, something that might be all too easy to forget. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the dimples on a golf ball make the ball more aerodynamic, and yes, I did just look that up using the internet. Do I suddenly consider myself an authority on, say, American food? Certainly not, but doing the golf-ball search has reminded me that if I wanted to, in a click of a button, I could soon be knowledgable about American food, or pretty much anything else ... for as long as I have a phone in my hand, at least.


Fisher, M., Goddu, M., & Keil, F. (2015). Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144 (3), 674-687 DOI: 10.1037/xge0000070

--further reading--
The paper effect: Note something down and you're more likely to forget it.
Saving information to computer frees your mind to learn new material

Post written by Simon Oxenham for the BPS Research Digest. Simon Oxenham covers the best and the worst of the world of psychology and neuroscience on his Neurobonkers blog at the Big Think. Follow @Neurobonkers on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS or join the mailing list.

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