Why Think When You Can Google Instead?

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Close-up of businessman standing with hand in pocket
Photo: SuperStock/Getty Images, Corbis

Most of us with smartphones probably feel a little sheepish about how often we consult them. (I have to use Google Maps, for example, every time I visit my friends in Bay Ridge, even though they are the people I’ve known longest in the city and I really should have the route memorized by now.) And so the question a team of psychologists at the University of Waterloo recently asked will likely be of interest: What does it say about our thinking skills when we habitually outsource problem-solving to our phones? 

Their results, published online this week in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggest that people who admit to relying more heavily on their smartphones for information — for instance, Googling something they could’ve figured out by with a few minutes of thinking about it — are also less likely to be analytical thinkers, judging from their answers to problems designed to assess cognitive style and ability. The smartphone-dependent were likelier to be intuitive thinkers, which means that they relied on their gut instincts rather than careful analysis. 

Here’s an example of one of those problems: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Gordon Pennycook, one of the study’s co-authors, explains the difference between answers from an intuitive thinker and an analytical thinker: 

The intuitive answer is 10 cents. However, this isn’t correct (if the ball costs 10 cents, then the bat would cost 1.10 and in total they would cost 1.20). The correct answer is 5 cents.

An intuitive person tends to just give the intuitive (10 cents) answer right away whereas a more analytical thinker will check to make sure the initial response (10 cents) is correct and, upon discovering that it is not, they will use their intelligence to get the correct answer (which is actually rather simple). 

Intuitive thinkers, then, are less willing (and perhaps less able) to approach problems with much effort. “And, as a consequence, they are more prone to relying on their smartphones to sort of do the thinking for them,” Pennycook said. “They may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn, but seem to be unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it.”

So while it’s not quite right to say that smartphones make us stupid, as some have characterized the study findings, there does seem to be a correlation between heavy reliance on searching for stuff on our phones and this lazier, less analytical approach to problem solving. And it could also be true that analytical thinkers are just less likely to look things up on their phones! There are many different ways to interpret these findings. 

As I confessed at the start of this post, I fear I do rely on my smartphone to solve problems that I really should just think through on my own, so I asked Pennycook whether this is something I should be worried about. “I do it as well!” Pennycook said. Because, obviously, there are times when it’s extremely useful to have quick and easy access too unfathomable amounts of information. 

My concern is that we do not know the consequences of offloading much of our thinking to our smartphones over a long period of time — decades, perhaps,” Pennycook said. “Will it make it less likely for us to think in analytical and logical ways about problems that cannot be Googled?” We’re still in the very early days of this area of research, which means we can’t yet know the answer to that. For now, Pennycook said, “this is not something that we can Google for an answer.”