Searching For Data On The Internet Makes Us Believe That We Are Smarter, According To A Study

Do we overestimate our intelligence by having a lot of information available?

Internet search engines and encyclopedic web pages are a powerful tool for finding all kinds of information in a matter of seconds. However, our relationship with the cyber world is not just one-way. We too are affected by our use of the Internet, even if we are not aware of it. For example, a recent article published in the  Journal of Experimental Psychology  suggests that the simple act of using the web to access information could be making us consider ourselves smarter than we really are.

Researchers Matthew Fisher, Mariel K. Goddu, and Frank C. Keil of Yale University believe that simply perceiving that we are able to access massive amounts of information rapidly through electronic devices makes us more likely to overestimate our level of knowledge. This hypothesis is supported by one of her latest research, in which she experimented with people who actively searched for data on the Internet and others who did not have that possibility. 

The different variants of the experiment show how the simple fact of having carried out an Internet search is enough for the participants to significantly overestimate their ability to retain and use information without consulting the network.

Questions and scales

Fisher and his team’s research began with a first phase in which a series of questions were asked of the volunteers. However, some of these people were not allowed to use any external source of information, while the rest had to search for an answer online for each question. After this phase, the volunteers were asked new questions related to topics that had nothing to do with what they had previously been asked. The participants had to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 the degree to which they believed they were capable of giving explanations to questions related to the theme of each of the questions posed.

The results extracted from the statistical analysis showed how the people who had consulted the Internet were significantly more optimistic when it came to rating themselves in their ability to offer explanations on the topics covered in the questions.

However, to complement the results obtained, the researchers decided to create a more complete variant of the experiment in which, before being able to search for an answer to a question with or without the help of the internet, all participants had to rate their perception of one’s own level of knowledge on a scale between 1 and 7, in the same way as they would have to do in the last phase of the experiment. 

In this way, it was possible to verify that in the two experimental groups (people who would use the Internet and those who would not) there were no significant differences in the way of perceiving their own level of knowledge. It was after the phase in which some people searched for information on the web that these differences arose.

More experiments on this

In another version of the experiment, the researchers focused on making sure that members of the two groups saw exactly the same information, to see how the simple act of actively searching for data online, regardless of what they do, influences people. that is. 

To do this, some people were given instructions on how to go to find specific information about the question on a specific website where this data was found, while the rest of the people were directly shown those documents with the answer, without giving them The possibility of searching for it themselves. People with the possibility of searching for information online continued to show a clear propensity to think they were somewhat smarter, judging by their way of rating themselves on the scales from 1 to 7.

The test to which the volunteers were subjected had a few more variants to control in the best possible way the variables that could contaminate the results. For example, different search engines were used in successive experiments. And, in an alternative version of the test, the self-knowledge score was replaced with a final phase in which volunteers had to look at various brain scan images and decide which of those photographs most closely resembled their own brain. Consistent with the rest of the results, people who had been searching the Internet tended to choose the images in which the brain showed the most activation.

What made the participants overvalue their knowledge was not the fact that they had found an answer to a question on the Internet, but the simple fact of being able to search for information on the Internet. The researchers realized this when they saw how those who had to find an answer that was impossible to find on the Internet tended to overestimate themselves as much as those who did find what they were looking for.

A price to pay

These results seem to speak of a mephistophelic contract between us and the Internet. Search engines offer us the virtual possibility of knowing everything if we have an electronic device nearby, but, at the same time, this could make us more blind to our limitations in finding answers for ourselves, without the help of anything or anyone. In a way, this brings us back to the  Dunning-Kruger Effect. Ours may have blessed us with the ability to believe that things are simpler than they really are, and this may even be very helpful in the vast majority of cases. However, this could become a problem when we have a resource as powerful as the Internet at hand.

It is convenient not to get lost and end up sacrificing on the altar of the god Google our ability to judge our abilities. After all, the network of networks is extensive enough that it is difficult to find the point where our neurons end and fiber optic cables begin.

Bibliographic references

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