How the Internet Makes You Think You’re Smart

By
Creative engineering, vintage illustration of the head of a man with an electronic circuit board for a brain, 1949. Screen print. (Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Photo: GraphicaArtis#Unified ED/Getty Images

You are not, unfortunately, as smart as Google allows you to believe you are. Across nine experiments, researchers from Yale University showed that when people have access to internet search engines, they consistently rate themselves as being better at explaining information than people who do not have access to search engines. It’s as if people confuse the ability to access information via Google with the ability to access information via their own brains, write the authors of the new paper, published online this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 

In one experiment, the researchers asked 152 people to explain the answer to a question like “How does a zipper work?” One group was able to search for the answer online, and the other was not. Afterwards, the researchers asked both groups to consider an unrelated question, like, “Why are there more Atlantic hurricanes in August and September?” They weren’t asked to answer this question, but to rate their confidence in answering correctly. In the end, those who’d had access to the internet for the previous task rated themselves as being able to give better answers than those who hadn’t used the internet for the previous question. (Remember, these answers were on topics unrelated to the ones they’d been able to search for online.)

In a series of follow-up experiments, the researchers found that this held true, even when they controlled for factors like time spent on the question and the content of the questions being asked. In a particularly interesting experiment, they told one group of 203 study participants that “increased activity in certain brain regions corresponds with higher quality explanations.” They then ran through the same experiment I described earlier, but at the end, showed both groups images depicting brain activity, asking them to choose which one they thought reflected the current state of the insides of their own heads. And, sure enough, those who’d been able to search for their answers online tended to choose the images depicting greater brain activity than the people who hadn’t searched online for their answers. 

There seems to be something particular about search engines that drives this pumped-up confidence in cognitive prowess. The researchers also asked people to answer a very specific question (like “Why are there dimples on a golf ball?”); one group was told to use a specific website to find their answer, such as Scientific American’s site, and another group was allowed to use a search engine. At the end, people in the group that was constricted to only one site rated their own knowledge as lower than those who’d been able to search.

It’s as if the act of searching out information online leads people to believe they’re playing some pivotal role in accessing that knowledge. This is a new version of an old phenomenon, the researchers point out, in that studies involving young children show that when kids are taught new words, they later tell researchers they “knew it all along,” anyway. Still, it’s more evidence that the line is blurring between stuff we store in our own brains, and stuff we outsource to Google