🧠 How Google Is Burrowing Deeper Into Your Brain
The blurring boundaries between you and the internet
Search engines give you practically any answer you need in fractions of a second. The process is so quick and effortless that there’s barely a distinction between coming up with an answer in your own head and having the answer given to you by Google.
According to new research, this blurred line may be impacting our sense of self and giving us false confidence in our own knowledge and ability. When you combine an ambiguous feeling that you might know an answer with Google’s immediate ability to show you the answer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you knew a fact all along. Our minds are overlapping more and more with the technology that assists them, and the seams are gradually disappearing.
You might find this a little scary or you might find it a little dazzling. Either way, it’s good to be aware of how your psychology is adapting to the internet.
🔮 Online omniscience
In October 2021, Adrian Ward—a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin—published a paper with a beautifully simple title: “People mistake the internet’s knowledge for their own”.
The paper featured 8 experiments interrogating how search engines affect people’s understanding of their own cognitive performance. In his first experiment, Ward asked 543 participants to answer 10 general knowledge questions. Half of those participants were told to avoid Google, while the other half were allowed to use Google to help with answering the questions.
Unsurprisingly, the Google users answered far more questions correctly (on average 9/10 compared to 3/10 for non-Google users). The interesting part was how confident people felt about their own abilities after the quiz. Ward asked everyone how confident they were in their ability to find facts in external sources (i.e. use Google), and also how confident they were in their own memory. For both of those questions, the googlers felt more confident than the non-googlers after completing the quiz.
In addition to these basic confidence ratings, Ward also asked people how many questions they expected to get correct if they had to do a second similar quiz without the help of Google. Once again, the googlers proved to be more optimistic than the non-googlers. Google’s effectiveness didn’t just make people confident about their ability to use Google; it fooled them into feeling more confident about their own cognitive capacity.
This false confidence was driven by people misattributing their quiz success to their excellent memories rather than to Google. When Ward ran the experiment again but asked the googlers to first write down their own answers before checking Google, he found less false confidence. After drawing a clear line between a person’s own performance and Google’s performance, there was less ambiguity about where Google was quickly filling cognitive blanks.
Google’s speed is part of the problem. When you see the answer to your question in milliseconds, you don’t have time to process exactly how much you know about the question yourself. Google interferes early in your thought process, making it difficult to rule out the idea that you already knew the answer. This then feeds into the false confidence illusion because all of us enjoy believing we’re in the know.
Consistent with this, when participants used a slow version of Google that delayed search results by 25 seconds, googling during the quiz no longer inflated memory confidence. Similar to writing down your answers before checking Google, a long delay in Google results gives you time to realize that you definitely don’t know an answer before you see it magically appear on a screen.
Some situations are unambiguous in relation to what we do or don’t know: the questions are either so easy that the answer is obvious or the questions are so difficult that we immediately see we don’t have a clue. As Ward puts it in his paper: “most Americans know that they know the name of the current US president and that they do not know where to find Ulaanbaatar on a map”. In these clear-cut cases, you typically won’t mistake the internet’s knowledge for your own.
But for all other situations that lie in grayer areas, there’s uncertainty about whether an answer is already known. Vague familiarity or connection with a question can make us feel we know more about the topic than we actually do, and Google’s quick answers prevent us from disproving that optimistic idea. Our limited personal knowledge begins to blend into Google’s infinite knowledge.
⭐️ Takeaway tips
Reinforce what you know: When a question feels familiar or an answer is on the tip of your tongue, take a few minutes to try and recall the answer yourself before googling it. Plucking the answers from your own mind will help to reinforce the mental connections that get you to those answers. If you fail to recall what you’re searching for, Google is then a great backup.
Build awareness of what you don’t know: Giving yourself thinking time will help to distinguish between your own insight and information that came from external sources. You’ll then be more likely to notice gaps in your knowledge so you can target them with future learning activities.
Keep track of Google’s greatness: In my opinion, efficient and well-targeted search engines are a huge benefit for the world overall. The level of access we have to external knowledge is inspiring and hugely productive. But we should keep a close eye on how these conveniences are impacting our perceptions, emotions, and personal development. As search engines improve, they’ll become more and more entwined with our sense of self, so these questions will only get more relevant.
💡 A final quote
“When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; this is knowledge.”
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👋 Until next time,
Erman Misirlisoy, PhD