Searching the internet makes people feel they know more than they really do, a new study finds.
And it doesn’t seem to matter much that people don’t actually find the information for which they were searching.
Matthew Fisher, who led the research, said:
“The Internet is such a powerful environment, where you can enter any question, and you basically have access to the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.
It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source.
When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet.”
In one of the nine experiments researchers carried out, people were asked: “Why is ancient Kushite history more peaceful than Greek history?”
Even when they couldn’t find complete answers to this very difficult question, simple searching made people more confident their personal knowledge was greater.
This was even true when researchers blocked their searches so they couldn’t find out anything at all.
Mr Fisher said:
“If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s very apparent to you that you don’t know, and it takes time and effort to find the answer.
With the Internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know.”
The reason may be that just being in ‘search mode’ is enough to make people feel they know more.
One of the experiments asked participants to look at various brain scans — some of which showed more activity in the brain than others.
People who’d just searched the internet chose pictures that represented more activity in their brains.
Mr Fisher said:
“In cases where decisions have big consequences, it could be important for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when they actually don’t.
The Internet is an enormous benefit in countless ways, but there may be some tradeoffs that aren’t immediately obvious and this may be one of them.
Accurate personal knowledge is difficult to achieve, and the Internet may be making that task even harder.”
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Fisher et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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