Using Google Search is making us believe we are more knowledgeable and intelligent than we actually are.
That’s not necessarily an easy idea to swallow, but sometimes the truth hurts. The harsh reality is that although search engines enable us to find out all sorts of information in a very short period of time, this is not a marker of our intelligence. We are not the only primates who have learned to use tools to our advantage.
The illusion has been shattered thanks to the conclusion of a study led by Yale University and published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Over the course of nine different experiments involving more 1,000 participants, psychologists determined that if people received information through internet searches, they rated their knowledge base more highly than those who received information through other means.
“This was a very robust effect, replicated time and time again,” said Matthew Fisher, the lead author of the study. “People who search for information tend to conflate accessible knowledge with their own personal knowledge.”
Not only did participants believe that they had more knowledge in their heads than non-internet users, but they saw their own brains as being more active, the study reports. The effect was so strong that even when participants using the internet did not find the full answer to a question they still had an inflated sense of their own knowledge.
One of the senior authors of the paper, Frank Keil, has expressed concern that the effects on younger generations who have never been without almost constant access to the internet may be even more profound. “The cell phone is almost like the appendage of their brain,” he says. “They don’t even realise it’s not real until they become unplugged.”
The problem the researchers identified was not that we are necessarily overly reliant on technology, but that we are delusional about the extent to which we rely on outsourced knowledge and we regularly misattribute the source of knowledge we have found online to our own heads. The tendency is to conflate knowledge from various sources, but take all the credit ourselves. That’s right, we are all plagiarising the internet without even realising it.
It’s highly possible that we have always done this with various external sources of knowledge, but as the researchers point out, “the rise of the internet has surely broadened the scope of this effect”. We have never had on-demand access to a knowledge database this massive before and therefore the human brain has never previously relied on such a system. This reliance isn’t necessarily a negative thing; the study points out that the internet also has more potential to become integrated with the human mind than any knowledge system that preceded it.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the fact that we are likely massively in denial about our reliance on Google Search, resulting in unrealistic self-confidence in our cognitive abilities. We thought it was just social media that was turning us all into unbearable braggarts. Now we know the truth: search engines are to blame too.