According to the latest study by researcher Adrian Ward of the University of Texas at Austin, search engines are now returning information so quickly that we tend to believe we have remembered information we actually looked up. This could give us unwarranted confidence in our ability to extract facts from our brains.
According to Ward, internet searches are more like remembering something, because they are usually fast and presented in easy-to-use interfaces. “Thinking with Google,” he writes, “which delivers information as unobtrusively as possible, may simply feel more like thinking alone.”
To test this hypothesis, Ward asked a variety of questions about the recall of information, and then asked people to answer them either through memory or Google.
The most basic experiment was that the subjects answered 10 questions using either their memory or an internet search, and then took a cognitive self-esteem test that measures how they felt about their mental performance. Those who used Google got more questions right, but they got away with an improved sense of their own abilities. They were also more likely than those who relied on memory to say that they would do well in a future test where they could not use the Internet.
In another experiment by Ward, both groups were given the right answers to the questions they faced so they could assess their own performance, then asked about their confidence in a future test, and again, Google users were more confident. In this case, however, the subjects were given this future test, and it turned out that Google’s inflated confidence was misplaced, as the people who were not allowed to use the internet in the second round performed just as poorly as everyone else.
Finally, the researchers compared Google users with people who were given a Wikipedia page that had the answer and found that Wikipedia users were more likely to remember where they got their information from, while Google users often remembered incorrectly and believed they remembered that fact themselves.
Ward provides a simple and non-threatening explanation for these studies: “If Google answers questions before users can finish searching their own memories, people may never realize that the internal search would have turned up empty.”
The consequences could be more complicated, as the inability to recognize the difference gives people an unrealistic sense of their mental capacity. There seems to be some overlap with the Dunning-Kruger effect, as individuals end up with an exaggerated view of their own abilities and do not have the ability to consider their limitations. Consequences could become apparent as soon as someone lands in a place with poor cell service.