Human cognition is now so intertwined with the internet, a knowledge-sharing system that can be accessed any time anywhere, that the boundaries between individual knowledge (i.e., personal memory) and collective knowledge (i.e., external online information) are becoming increasingly blurred. In other words, people may mistakenly believe that information they found online is from their personal memory.
New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences journal found, in 8 studies, exactly that: people who used Google to answer questions were more confident in their knowledge and memory than those who did not use Google. Importantly, though, people who used Google where no more likely to be correct than those who did not.
The world’s most important scientific breakthroughs have occurred not because of individual experts knowing everything on the subject, but because people draw on and use knowledge from other sources. “The frequency and facility with which people incorporate others’ knowledge into their own cognitive processes also reveals that individual human cognition is not really individual at all,” wrote study author Adrian F. Ward. “Thinking, remembering, and knowing are often collaborative, a product of the interplay between internal and external cognitive resources.”
“As stated by cofounder Sergey Brin, Google is intentionally designed to be less like an external tool and more like ‘the third half of your brain’—a knowledge interface so seamless that searching feels like thinking.”
In Experiment 1, participants answered 10 general knowledge questions either on their own or using Google. They then completed a cognitive self-esteem scale measuring how well they perceived their cognitive abilities to be. Results showed that participants who used Google answered more questions correctly, were more confident in their ability to access external knowledge and were more confident in their memory compared to those who answered questions on their own. This suggests that participants are attributing the information they found on Google to their own memory.
Experiment 2 was identical to Experiment 1 except that only half of the participants took the cognitive self-esteem measure. All participants were then asked to predict how many questions they would answer correctly on a second knowledge test where Googling was not allowed. Results show that those who did the first test with Google predicted they would know more on the second knowledge test than those who did the first test on their own. As in Experiment 1, those who Googled were more confident in their cognitive abilities than those who did not use Google.
Experiment 3 sought to expand on Experiment 2. The procedure was overall the same except participants completed two knowledge tests and were given the correct answers to the questions. Then, they predicted how well they would do on the second test where they would not be able to use Google. Lastly, they took the second test. Results showed that those who used Google to complete the first test predicted they would perform better on the second test, even without access to Google. Importantly, results show that these participants did not perform better on the second test compared to those who did not use Google at all. “These results both provide further evidence that people take personal credit for the knowledge contained in online search results and highlight how failure to appreciate the internet’s contributions may lead to overconfidence,” Ward noted.
Experiment 4 differed in that participants were assigned to one of three conditions: Google, no Google, or no Google and false feedback. In the third condition, participants were told they answered 8 out of 10 questions correctly. They were then asked whether they agreed with this score to split participants into those who did believe the false score and those who did not. Results showed those in the Google condition were just as confident in their memory as those who believed the false feedback. On the other hand, those in the no Google condition were as confident in their cognitive abilities as those who did not believe the false feedback.
In Experiment 5, participants were required to write down their answers before they consulted Google. Results show that people who wrote down their answers before Googling had lower confidence in their cognitive abilities and predicted they would know less on a future knowledge test compared to those who simply Googled their answers as in the previous experiments. “These results suggest that the typical process of online search obscures the relative contributions of internal versus external knowledge; when the limitations of personal knowledge are made salient, people no longer believe they know what the internet knows.”
In Experiment 6, the Google search results were delayed giving participants a chance to search their own personal memory for the answer while Google searches. The speed with which Google works does not allow people to truly search their personal memory for the answer. The third condition was changed in this experiment to a Google delayed search condition where answers took 25 seconds to appear. Results show that those who used slow Google were just as confident in their knowledge as those who did not use Google. Further, those who used slow Google did not predict they would perform better on a future knowledge text compared to those who did not use Google.
Experiment 7 expanded on the previous experiments by randomly assigning participants to answer easy, medium, or hard questions either with or without Google. Replicating results from the previous experiments for the medium level questions those who used Google thought they were smarter, had better memory, and predicted they would know more in the future than those who did not use Google. Google did not affect these judgments for easy questions. For hard questions, people who used Google expected to know more on similarly difficult questions in the future compared to those who did not use Google.
Experiment 8 had participants answer 50 general knowledge questions using either their own knowledge, Google, or Wikipedia. Those in Wikipedia condition were given a direct link to the relevant page. “Retrieving answers from Google may often feel like ‘just knowing’; in contrast, encountering and sifting through additional contextual information when searching for answers on Wikipedia may serve as a salient reminder that this knowledge originated in an external source.”
They were then presented with 70 questions (50 already seen, 20 new questions) and asked whether they answered the question using their own knowledge or the Internet. Results show that participants who used Google were less accurate at identifying the source of information than those who used Wikipedia. Further, those who Googled were more likely to attribute online information to their own memory than those in the Wikipedia condition. “These results suggest that seamless connection to online information does not just blur the boundaries between internal and external knowledge—at times, it may erase these boundaries entirely, leading people to believe that information found online was in fact found within their own skulls,” Ward concluded.
Altogether, results from these studies suggest indeed that relying on Google for knowledge may blur the lines between information we know and information we know we can easily retrieve online.