As anyone who's ever consulted their phone to look up the name of the actor who played that kid in that 80s sitcom and also the kid in that movie with the dog* knows, having easy access to the Internet can make us humans feel supernaturally smart—but cut off our connection, and alas, we return to our mortal mental state.
According to a new study, folks tend to ignore this distinction and mistake the knowledge provided by the Internet as our own. That’s right—we think we’re smarter than we actually are because of Google. Sorry, but you probably don’t know the title of every episode of Buffy or why cats purr or exactly why you can’t get an STD from a toilet seat without technological assistance.
“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," said Matthew Fisher, lead researcher on the study, in a statement. The study appears in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology.
"It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source," he said. "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."
The study consisted of nine experiments. In the first two, half the participants were told to use the Internet to research the answers to four pretty basic questions—for example, “How does a zipper work?” The other half had no access to the Internet and instead were told to simply rate how well they could answer the questions. Next, the participants were told to answer questions from six “domains” that were completely unrelated to the questions in the first phase—for example, “How do tornadoes form?”—and rate how well they could answer the questions. Those who had Internet access in the first phase generally rated their ability to answer the questions from the second phase as much higher than their non-Internet counterparts.
In another experiment, researchers gave one group of participants a specific URL to research a question (“Why are there dimples on a golf ball?”). The other group did not have Internet access, but the researchers provided them with the same exact explanation as the first group found online. Sure enough, the Internet researchers were more confident in their ability to answer the question.
In another, especially striking experiment, participants who had access to the Internet actually thought their brains were more active. When presented with a series of functional MRI scans and asked to choose which represented their brain activity, they chose the more active images.
But don’t worry—Internet access doesn’t lead to a general air of know-it-all-flavored confidence. Just know-it-all-flavored confidence as it pertains to information where the Internet would come handy. When does the Internet not come in handy, you might ask? Well, my dear, you can’t really Ask Jeeves about your own emotional connections to other people in your life, can you?
In another experiment, both the Internet research group and the non-Internet group were given a series of autobiographical questions such as “Why are you so close with your best friend?” They were then asked to rate how well they could explain their answers. Turns out, even with so much information at their fingertips, the Internet access group wasn't any more confident in their relationship smarts than the non-Internet folks.
Moral of the story: Internet access doesn’t make you personally smarter, so don’t go thinking you’re Lex Luthor (in an intellectual sense) just because you have WiFi. Besides, if you’re anything like me and value completely trivial information, when a name of an actor or a book slips your mind, forcing yourself to wait a couple minutes to try to figure it out before “consulting the oracle” feels like a much bigger accomplishment, anyway.