A Moment of Science

Does the Internet Make you Smarter?

Yale University psychology researchers found that people think it does. A study published last year summarized the results of nine experiments that showed that searching the internet for information led to people believing — falsely — that they knew more than they did.

The context in which the researchers — and, yes, they did REAL research not "research" by googling stuff — was the concept of "transactive memory." The basic idea of this is that people have their own memories and knowledge and then they also have "metamemory" or "metaknowledge." That is, they have a memory or knowledge of where to go to get things that are not in their own heads. I think we have all heard it said that when we don't know something we still know how to — probably — find what we want. The internet is an extraordinary transactive memory partnership. It can even mimic the sort of relationships we have with other people. Who here has "Siri" on their phone or tablet? Now it may be fun to ask Siri about the meaning of life or just "why?" But give it a few years and you will get decent answers even from such questions.

The internet is the largest repository of human knowledge ever. (OK, yes, and it also has a lot of nonsense and half-truths as well!) And ways of accessing it are becoming more human and even superhuman. It is rapidly becoming a universal expert, the ideal transaction memory partner, much much better than just an external storage device or "accessory brain." These Yale scientists wondered whether "the Internet's unique accessibility, speed, and expertise cause us to lose track of our reliance upon it, distorting how we view our own abilities." And this is just what they found:

The self-assessed ability to know the answers about anything increased after searching for explanations online in a previous, unrelated task, an effect that held even after controlling for time, content, and features of the search process. This is a true misattribution of the sources of knowledge, not a change in understanding of what counts as internal knowledge. This is shown in the first 5 experiments under varying conditions where the bars on the columns represent the statistical standard deviation that show clear separation.

This is not a kind of general overconfidence since it disappeared when the questions were autobiographical in experiment 3. There we see the standard deviation bars overlap. That is, after searching the internet people did not assess their ability to answer questions about things that cannot be found on the internet, questions about their personal experiences, either "easy" or "difficult," with greater confidence.

The authors concluded that this effect occurs specifically because information online can be so easily accessed through search. It doesn't depend on previous success or on a specific search engine. Rather, it persists when the queries posed to the search engine are not answered and remains even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers or even any results at all.

After searching the internet, people even felt that their brain activity, if it were to be measured by functional MRI imaging, was at higher levels. Those who did the internet searching chose images further on the right of these samples than did those who not did search the internet.

What's the lesson here? First, obviously, that the internet does not really make you smarter. But if you want to feel smarter, searching the internet will do that.

Curious side-note: this Yale research was funded in part by a grant from, of all places, the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA (and from the Templeton Foundation).

That's our Moment of Science.