Google puts a nearly infinite amount of knowledge at our fingertips, but a new study says that the search engine isn't making us any smarter.
Internet searches give people the illusion of personal knowledge even when they haven't actually gained any, according to research published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
"Unlike looking something up in a book or calling up a friend for the answer to a question, searching the Internet is nearly effortless," Matthew Fisher, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "The Internet is always available and gives instant answers, making people less aware of just how reliant they are on it."
In a series of experiments, participants searched for information on the Internet, such as the answer to the question "How does a zipper work?" They then answered questions about their perceptions of the knowledge they had gained.
The findings revealed that people who had searched for information online believed themselves to be more knowledgeable than a control group about topics that were completely unrelated to what they had just Googled. After a brief Internet search, the participants also perceived their brains to be more active than the control group, who didn't use the Internet. What's more, the participants had an inflated sense of personal knowledge and brain activity even when they couldn't find the information they were looking for.
The Internet blurs the line between what we know and what we think we know, the researchers concluded.
According to the study, people tend to confuse their own knowledge with that of the Internet, which has become a sort of external hard drive for the brain, holding much of the important information and memories that we rely on.
"People fail to realize how much of their knowledge they have outsourced to the Internet, making it harder for them to accurately assess their 'unplugged' knowledge," Fisher said.
Reading information online, after all, is not the same thing as understanding that information and holding it in one's memory, although most people don't seem to make this distinction.
"People end up thinking that the information stored online is information they know themselves," Fisher said. "A consequence of this could be that people are poor at recognizing the gaps in their own personal knowledge. In cases where someone wants to assess how much they know internally, without any outside help, their reliance on the Internet will make it difficult for them to do so."
Good thing most of us carry around mini computers in our pockets all day, so Google is never much farther than a hand movement away. Sounds like we're going to need it.