June 1st, 2015

Yale research: Internet inflates person’s sense of knowledge

Thanks to Google, iPhones and the Internet, some people gain a miscalculated sense of what they know.

Researchers at Yale University conducted several experiments to determine how looking information up online affected people’s opinion of their own intelligence.

The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology were derived by recruiting approximately 200 participants online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and breaking them into two groups: one that could look up answers to questions using a search engine and another that could not.

According to lead author Matthew Fisher, B.A., a fourth year graduate student at Yale’s Cognition and Development Lab, the participants were asked questions about things like why the moon has phases or golf balls have dimples. One group had the ability to use Google to obtain the answers while the other’s members had to provide responses on their own.

Then, the study subjects were asked to answer questions about topics completely unrelated to what they had just looked up. They were asked to judge their ability to expound on more complex subjects such as history or politics.

“The ones who used the Internet before believed they’d be able to explain these other areas because they failed to realize the boundary between their knowledge versus access to the content,” Fisher said. “People mistook access to information for their own personal understanding of it.”

He noted that when non-Internet users were exposed to the same text of the web page that the other group members had accessed, the Googling people still had a higher opinion of how much they knew.

Similarly, participants were shown MRI images of the brain at different levels of activity while asked self-assessment questions. The Internet users selected images showing larger areas of the brain lit up (with activity).

“Searching the Internet has an inherent trade off,” Fisher said. “People end up thinking they have knowledge in their head that is actually stored elsewhere and is only accessible to them.”

Fisher said he was somewhat surprised by the study’s findings, particularly when a filter was put on Google to ensure that certain searches turned up without results except for the message, “did not match any documents.” Even in these cases, the Internet users still believed they had more general knowledge than those individuals who did not engage in any type of search.

Fisher said examining how humans can or cannot accurately assess their own knowledge is important as technology use continues to grow and devices like Smart Phones become prevalent in everyday life.

The danger of being constantly “plugged in” could show itself in “unplugged,” situations such as being called upon to respond during a job interview, he said.

“On the one hand, this inflated sense (of intelligence) gives a person the confidence to do things and carry out tasks.” But on the flip side, that false estimation of their expertise could be detrimental in cases where decisions have major consequences.

“There are times when people should not assume they know something when they really don’t,” he said.

Fisher’s collaborators on the study included Frank C. Keil, Ph.D., faculty member and Mariel K. Goddu, B.A., lab manager.

By Susan Gonsalves

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