A few months ago, Yale University researchers released a study, which found the internet makes us think we’re more knowledgeable than we actually are.
When we have the chance to access information near-instantaneously online, we often mistakenly believe all that information is stored in our own heads.
OK, but even if our inability to assess the extent of our own knowledge is a downside of owning a smartphone, it’s outweighed by all the benefits of having information at your fingertips, right?
In a new interview with Scott Berinato of The Harvard Business Review, lead study author Michael Fisher said this phenomenon poses dangers to society.
“With some professions, we want people to be truly knowledgeable, not have a false sense of their knowledge,” he said. “Surgeons, for example. At the very least we have to start structuring our world so that if such people rely on this appendage [the internet], they’re never cut off from it.”
In other words, most of us would find it pretty disconcerting to be operated on by a smartphone-less surgeon who suddenly realises she doesn’t know how to complete the procedure without Google’s help.
The study included a series of experiments that suggest having internet access causes people to overestimate the scope of their own knowledge. In one experiment, some participants used the internet to answer a series of questions (e.g. “How does a zipper work?”) while other participants tried to answer them without using the internet. Then, all participants were asked to assess their ability to answer a set of unrelated questions (e.g. “How do tornadoes form?”) without using the internet.
As it turns out, participants who had internet access the first time around significantly overestimated their ability to answer the second set of questions compared to the group who didn’t have internet access in the first portion. In subsequent experiments, the researchers found that even when people couldn’t find answers to the questions online, they still rated their own knowledge higher.
The study authors suggest that’s because having internet access causes people to see the data available online as an extension of their own brain.
This research has some important implications. For one, it’s scary to think that politicians and other leaders could be making decisions based on knowledge they don’t really have.
“In cases where decisions have big consequences, it could be important for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when they actually don’t,” Fisher said in a release.
Second, when we’re suddenly separated from the internet, we may panic when we realise how relatively uninformed we are.
As internet access and smartphone usage become more widespread, we may need to pay more attention to this tendency to conflate the knowledge available with the knowledge stored in our minds.
“The internet is an enormous benefit in countless ways,” Fisher said, “but there may be some tradeoffs that aren’t immediately obvious and this may be one of them.”
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