The internet isn’t necessarily making you smarter.
Even if you think it is.
New research from the American Psychological Association has shown that Internet searches only give the illusion of personal knowledge. After all, you can pretty much Google any question you’ve ever had and get an answer.
According to lead researcher Matthew Fisher, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University, seeking information online makes it easier to confuse your personal knowledge with the external source.
“When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet,” says Fisher.
In a series of experiments, participants who searched for information online believed they were more knowledgeable than a control group about topics that were unrelated to the online searches.
Turns out that the participants who searched the internet were a little too confident for their own good.
Researchers noted they had an inflated sense of their own knowledge after searching the internet – even when they couldn’t find the information they were looking for. After the online searches, the participants also believed that their brains were more active than the control group did.
Here’s how it worked: A range of 152 to 302 participants were recruited online for a total of nine experiments, with different participants taking part in each experiment. In one, the internet group relied on online searches to answer questions – for example, “How does a zipper work?” – and provided a website link with the best answer.
The control group was given the exact text from the most common website used by the online group to answer the questions. Both groups then rated their ability to answer other questions on topics unrelated to the Internet searches, despite not having to answer those questions.
Without fail, the internet group members consistently rated themselves as more knowledgeable than the control group about those unrelated topics. They also reported an inflated sense of personal knowledge after internet searches even when its members could not find complete answers to very difficult questions (like “Why is ancient Kushite history more peaceful than Greek history?”) or when they found no answers at all because of Google filters.
So what does this mean? According to the researchers, the cognitive effects of being in the deep depths of internet search mode could be so powerful that people feel smarter even when their online searches fail them.
To hammer home this point, another experiment showed that those who did online searches thought their brains would be more active than the control group. They selected magnetic resonance images of a brain with more active areas highlighted as a reflection of their own brains.
Access and use of online searches = thinking you know more than others.
You want to actually be smarter? Researchers suggest engaging in research when reading a book or to talk to an expert rather than searching the internet.
“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,” said Fisher. “With the Internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know.”
This, of course, could have less-than-ideal consequences when it comes to high stake decision-making or research.
“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,” said Fisher.
“The Internet is an enormous benefit in countless ways, but there may be some tradeoffs that aren’t immediately obvious and this may be one of them. Accurate personal knowledge is difficult to achieve, and the Internet may be making that task even harder.”
The fact that our smartphones are pretty much glued to our hands at all times only makes the problem worse.
Not to mention that baby sitting next to you at dinner on an iPad…