Intelligence

Search Engines Make You Feel Smarter Than You Really Are

You're having drinks with friends, and the conversation turns to whether or not beer is vegan. You whip out your phone and make a visit to your old pal Google: sure enough, some beer is made with fish bladders. Mystery solved! Another friend wonders: why does beer get you drunk, anyway? That's a good question. How confident are you that you could answer it without the internet? According to research, you're probably pretty confident—and you really shouldn't be.

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This Is Your Brain On Google

In 2015, Yale University doctoral student Matthew Fisher published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology to determine how the ability to search the internet affected how much people thought they knew. He gave subjects a survey asking simple questions such as "Why are there phases of the moon?" and "How does a zipper work?" and let only half of them use a search engine to find the answers. Next, he presented them with similar, but unrelated questions ("How do tornadoes form?" or "What is gluten?") and only asked them to rate how well they thought they could answer each. Sure enough, those allowed to search online for the answers to the first questions rated their ability higher than those who answered them without help.

Related: Why Do Incompetent People Think They're So Great?

To make sure this wasn't a quirk of the way he performed the study, Fisher redid his experiment in a bunch of different ways. He had subjects rate their knowledge first, then had half use the internet, then had them rate their knowledge again—same result. He made sure they both went to the same website for the answer, but had half go straight there and half search for the website—those who searched still rated their knowledge higher than the other group did. He used different search engines, filtered the results so the answer wouldn't show up, and asked questions that didn't have answers online. In every instance, the internet searchers showed an inflated sense of their own knowledge.

What's Going On?

In essence, you don't know what you don't know. "People are unlikely to be able to explain their own shortcomings," Fisher told NPR. With search engines, "we are not forced to face our own ignorance and ask for help; we can just look up the answer immediately." The ease with which you can find an answer on the internet is the exact thing that makes you overconfident in your abilities: you found the answer in three seconds flat just now, so why wouldn't you be able to do it again?

Of course, these days, being without the internet is a rare thing. Most of the time, it might not make a difference how much of your knowledge is in your head and how much is out in cyberspace. Still, knowing your weaknesses is better than overconfidence...isn't it?

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Written By Ashley Hamer January 5, 2017