Internet search technologies, such as Google, has always been there for us, students, lecturers, journalists, developers and every internet user. Google, for instance, has never ceased for a moment from answering our endless questions about every aspect of life. With the world knowledge at our fingertips, no wonder we think that we are getting ‘smarter’ and more ‘knowledgeable’ every day. Unfortunately, researchers think differently, based on a recent online study.
Published by the American Psychological Association (APA), the study involved a series of experiments under which participants were divided into two groups, the internet group and the control group. The participants were given a series of questions such as “How does a zipper works” and “Why the cloudy nights are warmer”. During the experiment, the internet group was allowed to search online for answers and provided a website link with the best answer.
The control group, on the other hand, was provided with the printout text from the common website picked by the Internet group to answer the questions. Both groups then were asked to rate their ability to answer different set of questions of topics unrelated to the previous searches. Although they didn’t have to answer those questions, members of the Internet group consistently rated themselves as more knowledgeable than the control group about those topics.
In another experiment, the internet group also thought that their brains are more active than those of the control group. When presented with MRI images showing brain activities, they picked the images of a brain with more active areas highlighted as representative of their own brains. This certainly indicates that Internet group believed they had “more knowledge” in their heads, rather than thinking they knew more because they had access to the Internet (which is the reality).
What we’ve learned
The study results have revealed that the internet group exhibited an “inflated” sense of knowledge even when they couldn’t answer some of questions given. More importantly, the results has shown that the cognitive effects of “being in search mode” on the Internet might be so influencing that it makes people feel they are smarter even when their search results actually reveal nothing.
According to the lead researcher Matthew Fisher, when doing a research of any kind, people must read a book or talk to an expert rather than simply relying on the internet for answers. “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.”
The rise in smartphones use may have worsened this issue. Unlike laptops or desktop computers, smartphones provide a 24/7 access to the internet. It’s hard to grasp the adverse effects that might result when children immersed in the Internet from an early age grow up to be adults, believing they know about the world more than what they actually do.
Fisher also pointed about that an inflated sense of personal knowledge can be dangerous in the politics or other areas where high-stakes decisions are highly involved. When decisions have huge consequences, it is crucial for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when, in reality, they don’t.
Google and other Internet technologies are extremely useful in unlimited ways, but there might be some tradeoffs that aren’t obvious and this may be one of them.
Regardless of the amount of knowledge within our reach, an accurate personal knowledge will always remain hard to achieve, and the Internet might be making achieving it even harder.