Health & Wellness

'Google it!' Internet searches make us think we're smarter than we really are

We’ve all been in this situation before: You’re out with a group of friends and you get into a debate over the answer to a silly question like, “Who was the 23rd president?” or, “How many miles to Pluto?”

The solution? “Let’s Google it!”

Well, according to new research out of Yale University, this ability to look something up on the Internet makes people think they know more than they actually do.

“Even though the Internet is obviously an amazing resource, our findings suggest that people fail to recognize how much they rely on it,” said lead researcher Matthew Fisher, a fourth-year psychology doctoral candidate at Yale. “When they’re searching for information online they end up with an illusion of knowledge — they conflate what they actually know with what they know they can find.”

In a series of nine small experiments ranging from 152 to 302 online participants, Fisher and his team tried to gauge the psychological impact of online searches. In one test, a group of participants was asked to use an Internet search to answer a basic question like, “How does a zipper work?” while the control group was given a printout with that same information. When the two groups were later quizzed on a completely unrelated question, the Internet group consistently rated themselves as more knowledgeable.

The Internet group retained this inflated sense of intelligence regardless of what search engine they used or whether they could actually find the right answer. Study co-author Frank Keil, PhD, a psychology professor at Yale, says the cognitive effects of “being in search mode” may be so powerful that people feel smarter even when their searches reveal nothing.

Fisher warns that this inflated sense of knowledge could be problematic in areas like politics, where people are required to make high-stakes decisions without the help of a computer or smartphone.

This study isn’t definitive — it’s a relatively small study and participants self-selected to participate which could lead to biases. But it adds to the growing body of research that says the Internet is changing how we think.

This research is part of a larger field known as “transactive memory systems”, a theory first proposed by Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a former Harvard psychiatry professor, in 1987. It is the idea that information can be distributed across a group — the knowledge of a group is greater than any individual. The quintessential example, according to Fisher, is the elderly couple who alone can’t remember the story of how they first met, but together recall enough parts to tell the complete story.

In recent years, the theory of transactive memory systems has expanded from human groups to include technology, like the Internet. People rely on information they know they can find online and remember where to find certain facts, rather than the fact itself. Sometimes, according to Fisher, this goes so far that people have trouble differentiating what information they have in their brain and what they know how to find on the Internet.

Does this mean we need to abandon our friendly search engines?

Not necessarily. According to Fisher, this isn’t always a bad thing, and may be an adaptive strategy: “It may be more cognitively taxing to remember every fact as opposed to being able to remember how to get the information you need.”

But if you want to avoid an over-inflated intelligence , Fisher suggests trying an “internal search first” — before automatically reaching for your smartphone, ask yourself whether this a question you know the answer to, that way you can begin to separate what you know from what the Internet knows.