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Yes, You Are Googling Yourself Stupid

Yale researchers claim internet searching leads to “wildly inaccurate” faith in a person’s own intelligence.

image via (cc) flickr user froderik

We live in an era where it’s no exaggeration to say that nearly the whole of human knowledge is available to us at a moment’s notice, simply by tapping a few times on our smartphones. Given the immediacy of just about every fact, statistic, and complex philosophical treatise, we’ve all become Google geniuses who are able to access the far corners of the human experience in a matter of seconds. But don’t let proficiency at IMDB searches and Wikipedia fact-checking fool you: When it comes to actual intelligence, the more time we spend searching online, the more we’re prone to overestimating how smart we actually are.

That, at least, is the conclusion reached by Yale researchers in “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge," a paper published last week in American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology. Lead by doctoral candidate Matthew Fisher, the research team administered a series of experiments to over a thousand students in order to test the degree to which internet connectivity affects a person's sense of their own intelligence. According to The Telegraph:

In one test, the internet group were given a website link which gave the answer to the question ‘how does a zip work’ while a control group were given a print-out of the same information.

When they two groups were quizzed later on an unrelated question – ‘why are cloudy nights warmer?’ the group who had searched online believed they were more knowledgeable even though they were not allowed to look up the correct answer.

It’s a uniquely digital twist on the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon first observed in 1999 by Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, in which individuals believe they possess abilities or intelligence far greater than what they, in fact, do. The key, in this case, is the act of searching. As the study explains (p.10):

The illusion of knowledge from Internet use appears to be driven by the act of searching. The effect does not depend on previous success on a specific search engine, but rather generalizes to less popular search engines as well (Experiment 4a). It persists when the queries posed to the search engine are not answered (Experiment 4b) and remains even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers or even any results at all (Experiment 4c). Even when stripped of such potentially integral features, Internet searching still results in increases in self-assessed knowledge. This suggests that the illusion is driven by the act of searching itself.

So even if a web search doesn’t render any useful results, those doing the searching believe themselves to be smarter, nonetheless. Or, put it another way: When it comes to having a false sense of how intelligent a person really is, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

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