Internet searches are creating the illusion of personal knowledge, Yale University research finds. An inflated sense of personal knowledge could have negative effects, the study concludes.åÊSearching the Internet for information often makes people feel smarter than they actually are, according to this new research published by the American Psychological Association.
ÛÏThe Internet is such a powerful environment, where you can enter any question, and you basically have access to the worldÛªs knowledge at your fingertips,Û said lead researcher Matthew Fisher, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University. ÛÏIt 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.Û
In a series of experiments, participants who searched for information on the Internet believed they were more knowledgeable than a control group about topics unrelated to the online searches. In a result that surprised the researchers, participants had an inflated sense of their own knowledge after searching the Internet even when they couldnÛªt find the information they were looking for. After conducting Internet searches, participants also believed their brains were more active than the control group did. The research was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Generalå¨.
For nine experiments, a range of 152 to 302 participants were recruited online, with different participants taking part in each experiment. In one experiment, the Internet group used online searches to research four questions (e.g., ÛÏHow does a zipper work?Û) and provided a website link with the best answer. The control group was given the exact text from the most common website used by the Internet group to answer the questions. Both groups then rated their ability to answer other questions (e.g., ÛÏWhy are cloudy nights warmer?Û) on topics unrelated to the Internet searches, although they didnÛªt have to answer those questions. The Internet group members consistently rated themselves as more knowledgeable than the control group about those unrelated topics.
The Internet group reported an inflated sense of personal knowledge after Internet searches even when its members could not find complete answers to very difficult questions (e.g., ÛÏWhy is ancient Kushite history more peaceful than Greek history?Û) or when they found no answers at all because of Google filters that were used. The cognitive effects of ÛÏbeing in search modeÛ on the Internet may be so powerful that people still feel smarter even when their online searches reveal nothing, said study co-author Frank Keil, PhD, a psychology professor at Yale.
In another experiment, participants who did online searches thought their brains would be more active than the control group, and they chose magnetic resonance images of a brain with more active areas highlighted as representative of their own brains. This result suggests that the participants searching the Internet believed they had more knowledge in their heads, rather than simply thinking they knew more because they had access to the Internet, Fisher said.
The use of Internet searches, not just access to the Internet, appeared to inflate participantsÛª sense of personal knowledge. When the Internet group members were given a particular website link to answer questions, they didnÛªt report higher levels of personal knowledge on the unrelated topics than the control group.
People must be actively engaged in research when they read a book or talk to an expert rather than searching the Internet, Fisher said. ÛÏIf you donÛªt know the answer to a question, itÛªs very apparent to you that you donÛªt know, and it takes time and effort to find the answer,Û he said. ÛÏWith the Internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know.Û
The growing use of smartphones may exacerbate this problem because an Internet search is always within reach, Keil said, and the effects may be more pronounced when children who are immersed in the Internet from an early age grow up to be adults.
An inflated sense of personal knowledge also could be dangerous in the political realm or other areas involving high-stakes decisions, Fisher said.
ÛÏIn 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 donÛªt,Û he said. ÛÏThe Internet is an enormous benefit in countless ways, but there may be some tradeoffs that arenÛªt 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.Û
When these smartypants start their Internet searches, 7.8% of them often turn to Ask.com. 21% of Ask.com users are aged 45–54. You can find 32% of this audience playing the lottery. They could be searching for nearby pawn shops, because according to AudienceSCAN, they are 69% more likely than average Americans to have bought or sold an item in a pawn shop in the past year. This audience also could be looking for the best refinancing rates, because Ask.com searchers are 140% more likely than average to pay for mortgage refinancing services this year.
AudienceSCAN data is available as part of a subscription to AdMall for Agencies. Media companies can access AudienceSCAN data through the Audience Intelligence Reports inåÊAdMall.