Is Google making us stupid? (I don't know; let me look that up.)

What do we really know when we don't have access to the Internet?

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General finds that people who resolve problems by looking for answers on the Internet think they are smarter than they actually are.

Matthew Fisher, a cognitive psychology doctoral student at Yale University, conducted a survey of 195 individuals to determine how browsing the Web for answers affected their sense of intelligence.

For the first part of his study, Fisher asked his subjects simple questions, such as "Why are there leap years?" or "How does a zipper work?" He allowed half of his subjects to use the Internet to look for the answers, while the other half was not permitted to do so. The research team then asked the participants to rate their ability to explain answers to six additional, unrelated questions, like "Why does Swiss cheese have holes?"

The study found that people who had been allowed to browse the Internet for the answers to the previous questions rated their ability to answer the second set of questions higher than the non- Internet group.

To understand the discrepancy, Fisher developed another experiment with 142 separate subjects. This time, he asked participants to rate their ability to explain six concepts before and after the test. Prior to the test, he found that there was no discrepancy in the self-ratings. But after the test, participants allowed to use the Internet once again rated their intelligence above that of the non-internet participants.  

In a third experiment, researchers gave all participants the exact same text—allowing the Internet group to search a specific website with the test and giving the same text to the non-Internet group in printed form. Again, the Internet group was more confident about its ability to explain the unrelated questions.

Fisher and his team continued to come up with alternate tests to explain why the Internet-enabled groups had more confidence in their knowledge than the other team, such as using alternate search engines and altering the wording of his question, but the results remained consistent: Searching online led to inflated confidence.  

According to Fisher, using the Internet leaves people confident that the information remains in their brains for the long term. But, he says that is not the case. "We think the information is leaking into our head, but really the information is stored somewhere else entirely," Fisher tells NPR's "Shots" blog. However, he says most people are unaware of their shortcomings "until they encounter the gaps" in their explanations or arguments.

In the study, Fisher concludes that by "erroneously situating external knowledge within their own heads, people may unwittingly exaggerate how much intellectual work they can do in situations where they are truly on their own."

And he notes that the more we rely on the Web, the harder it will be to determine where our human knowledge ends and the Internet's begins (Rutsch, "Shots," NPR, 4/2; Bernstein, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 4/1; Cuda, "What the Health," CT News, 3/31) .

The takeaway: Ken Burns and his team have turned Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee's critically acclaimed book on cancer into a three-part documentary that aired on PBS this week. Watch it here.

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