Character  &  Context

Being Able to Search the Internet Inflates How Much We Think We Know

Image of a computer keyboard with a green search button

By: Matthew Fisher

Why is the sky blue? Why do we yawn? How is glass made?

We all learned the answers at some point. Most could provide at least a surface response, but when pressed, perhaps you would have difficultly coming up with a completely satisfying explanation. Until relatively recently, if the answer slipped your mind, you would often have to remain ignorant. Nagging questions could easily go unanswered. Satisfying your curiosity required what would now be considered some serious effort. You would have to call up your trivia buff friend or flip through the pages of an Encyclopedia Britannica. Today, we have instant access to the world’s knowledge. In mere seconds, anyone with a smartphone can pull up the answer to nearly any question they might have. In fact, Google will often autocomplete the search query and display an answer box so that not even one click is needed. We have become so accustomed to our information-saturated environment that it can be jarring to be disconnected. An airplane ride without Wi-Fi or a power outage can be a rude awakening that the knowledge usually at our fingertips is not our own.

Has the Internet changed how people think about their own knowledge? My colleagues and I recently conducted nine experiments to help address this question (Fisher, Goddu & Keil, 2015). We found that searching online leads to an illusion where people count information they can access as their own personally mastered knowledge.

In our experiments, we had people consider a series of questions like "why are there phases of the moon" or “how does a zipper work”. Half of the participants were asked to look up the answers using the Internet and the other half were directly given the answers they would have found had they searched online. We then asked participants how well they could explain totally unrelated topics without using any outside resources. People who had just searched online thought they could explain the new topics better than the people who had not used the Internet. Even though each group received the exact same information, the searchers provided higher estimates of their own knowledge. Follow-up experiments showed that being embedded in the search environment is the key factor explaining our finding. Even if people did not receive helpful information from their search query, the mere act of searching lead to a boost in how much people thought they knew.

This evidence suggests that searching the Internet makes people feel smarter than they would have otherwise. Constant, immediate, and reliable access to endless amounts of information leads people to think that knowledge they find is already in their head, when in fact it is not. The very act of searching online, separate from any content that may be learned along the way, gives people and inflated sense of their own abilities.

Does this mean we should unplug our routers and dust off our flip-phones? Not in the least. The Internet provides countless benefits, but there may be some tradeoffs that are important to recognize. Our findings suggest people are failing to realize how much they rely on online information. For much of our lives we might not notice our dependence because we are constantly connected. But in situations where we want to assess how much knowledge we have purely on your own, our reliance on the Internet makes that task more difficult.

Matthew Fisher is a 5th year Ph.D. student in Psychology at Yale University. He researches how people think about their own knowledge and how the Internet, education and argumentation can lead to illusions of understanding. To find out more information, visit campuspress.yale.edu/matthewfisher or contact him at matthew.fisher@yale.edu.

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