Research & Insights

Google this: You’re not as smart as you think you are

New research out of Yale University’s Department of Psychology suggests that having a smartphone with the world’s information at your fingertips may be doing more than distracting you from your dinnertime conversation. It may be tricking you into thinking you’re more knowledgeable than you actually are.

To learn more about how internet searching changes how we evaluate our own knowledge, psychology researchers Matthew Fisher, Mariel K. Goddu, and Frank C. Keil did a series of nine experiments each including at least 302 participants. Respondents first answered a series of common trivia questions, for instance, “Why are there leap years?” Some participants were instructed to use the internet to search for answers, while others were not allowed to look up the questions online. Respondents were then asked how knowledgeable they thought they were about a second list of trivia questions, such as “Why can’t HIV be transmitted through saliva?”

Fisher, Goddu, and Keil found that searching for the trivia information online led people to believe they were more knowledgeable even about the topics they hadn’t searched for. Participants who used the search engine consistently ranked themselves as higher in knowledge about the topics they hadn’t searched for than the participants who didn’t use the internet.

Interestingly, this effect held true even when the respondents couldn’t find a complete answer to trivia questions. One of the studies replaced the easily-Googled first set of questions with a series of complex and specialized questions, such as “How does the location of Cameroon affect the health of its inhabitants?” These questions were designed to foil the participants’ searching skills, leaving them with only incomplete answers. The researchers were surprised to find that even after respondents’ searches returned “zero results,” respondents who searched for information online still reported having higher levels of knowledge than participants who didn’t do a search.

Fisher, Goddu, and Keil believe this happens because “searching the Internet leads people to conflate information that can be found online with knowledge ‘in the head.’” That is, people mistake information they found online with information they already knew, leading them to over-estimate how much knowledge they have stored in their brains.

“After using Google to retrieve answers to questions,” the authors note, “people seem to believe they came up with these answers on their own.”

This is especially important when working on communications efforts aimed at policymakers. As Fisher points out in an interview with the American Psychological Association, “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.”

Matthew Fisher, Mariel K. Goddu, Frank C. Keil, Yale University

Posted: May 6, 2015
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