We all have one of those friends: The girl who whips out her iPhone in response to the most casual of questions, the guy who will happily devote several minutes to tracking down a piece of trivia, his face lit up in his laptop’s blue glow.
And the intellectual satisfaction of figuring out it was Alfalfa from “The Little Rascals” in that cameo on “CSI” (unfortunately with different hairdo)? It lingers long after you lose your WiFi connection, according to psychologists. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Monday, researchers at Yale say that the mere act of using a search engine makes people think they know more about everything — even topics unrelated to the question they just Googled.
“Searching the Internet may cause a systematic failure to recognize the extent to which we rely on outsourced knowledge,” the study said. “… People mistake access to information for their own personal understanding of the information.”
That conclusion comes from a series of nine experiments, each of which examined how looking things up online affected people’s confidence in their intellectual abilities. In one, participants were posed several simple, explanatory questions — for example, “how does a zipper work?” — and then asked to assess their ability to answer a series of more complex ones on topics ranging from meteorological phenomena to American history. Those in the group that had been allowed to look up zipper mechanisms on the Internet were much more confident that they could explain the prevalence of Atlantic hurricanes in August and September, not to mention the formation of the first labor unions. Even when the non-Internet users were provided with the exact text of the web page that the Internet users were referencing to answer the first questions, the Googling group still had a higher opinion of its own range of knowledge during the self-assessment.
In another experiment, participants were shown a series of MRI images, each showing a different level of activity in the brain, and asked to identify which they thought corresponded with their own brain while they answered a series of self-assessment questions. Here again, the Internet users demonstrated their inflated ego, selecting images that larger swaths of the brain lit up with activity.
Though some people’s online searches were unsuccessful, merely typing into Google and scrolling through the results seemed to offer a confidence boost. For example, the first several pages of Google results for the question “Why is ancient Kushite history more peaceful than Greek history?” offer no straightforward answers (though they do turn up the American Psychological Association’s press release about this study). But the participants who failed to explain the source of the Kushites’ tranquility still gave themselves relatively high ratings during the self- assessment section.
Even when a filter was put on Google to ensure that the search turned up no results at all — just the message “did not match any documents” and a gentle suggestion to check their spelling — the Internet users remained more confident about the general knowledge assessment than those who hadn’t tried searching at all.
Weirdly, it’s the act of searching, not just simple access to the Internet, that gives people the illusion of their own brilliance. People who were given the URL of a web page to help them answer questions gave themselves lower self-knowledge ratings than the search engine users.
The phenomenon likely stems from what researchers call “transactive memory systems.” When humans form familiar groups, such as research teams or intimate couples, they “divide cognitive labor” to operate more efficiently, the study says. In other words, individuals no longer need to know everything, so long as one member of their group does.
The same thing is happening with the Internet, the study’s authors argue, and we don’t even realize it.
“If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s very apparent to you that you don’t know, and it takes time and effort to find the answer,” lead author Matthew Fisher said in an APA press release. “With the Internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know.”
That’s worrisome to Fisher, because it means that people are increasingly likely to overestimate their own expertise in situations where it actually is important that they know what they’re talking about.
“In cases where decisions have big consequences, it could be important for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when they actually don’t,” he said. “Accurate personal knowledge is difficult to achieve, and the Internet may be making that task even harder.”
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