The illusion of knowledge


This post, along with seventy-eight others, is collected in the book Utopia Is Creepy.

The internet may be making us shallow, but it’s making us think we’re deep.

A newly published study, by three Yale psychologists, shows that searching the web gives people an “illusion of knowledge.” They start to confuse what’s online with what’s in their head, which gives them an exaggerated sense of their own intelligence. The effect isn’t limited to the particular subject areas that people explore on the web. It’s more general than that. Doing searches on one topic inflates people’s sense of how well they understand other, unrelated topics. As the researchers explain:

One’s self-assessed ability to answer questions increased after searching for explanations online in a previous, unrelated task, an effect that held even after controlling for time, content, and features of the search process. The effect derives from a true misattribution of the sources of knowledge, not a change in understanding of what counts as internal knowledge and is not driven by a “halo effect” or general overconfidence. We provide evidence that this effect occurs specifically because information online can so easily be accessed through search.

The researchers, Matthew Fisher, Mariel Goddu, and Frank Keil, documented the effect, and its cause, through nine experiments. They divided test subjects into two groups. One group spent time searching the web, the other group stayed offline, and then both groups estimated, in a variety of ways, their understanding of various topics. The experiments consistently showed that searching the web gives people an exaggerated sense of their own knowledge.

To make sure that searchers’ overconfidence in assessing their smarts stemmed from a misperception about the depth of knowledge in their own heads (rather than reflecting a confidence in their ability to Google the necessary information), the psychologists, in one of the experiments, had the test subjects make estimates of their brain activity:

Instead of asking participants to rate how well they could answer questions about topics using a Likert scale ranging from 1 (very poorly) to 7 (very well), participants were shown a scale consisting of seven functional MRI (fMRI) images of varying levels of activation, as illustrated by colored regions of increasing size. Participants were told, “Scientists have shown that increased activity in certain brain regions corresponds with higher quality explanations.” This dependent variable was designed to unambiguously emphasize one’s brain as the location of personally held knowledge. Participants were then asked to select the image that would correspond with their brain activity when they answered the self-assessed knowledge questions.

The subjects who searched the net before the task rated their anticipated brain activity as being significantly stronger than did the control group who hadn’t been looking up information online.

Similar misperceptions may be produced by consulting other external, or “transactive,” sources of knowledge, the researchers note, but the illusion is probably much stronger with the web, given its unprecedented scope and accessibility:

This illusion of knowledge might well be found for sources other than the Internet: for example, an expert librarian may experience a similar illusion when accessing a reference Rolodex. … While such effects may be possible, the rise of the Internet has surely broadened the scope of this effect. Before the Internet, there was no similarly massive, external knowledge database. People relied on less immediate and accessible inanimate stores of external knowledge, such as books—or, they relied on other minds in transactive memory systems. In contrast with other sources and cognitive tools for informational access, the Internet is nearly always accessible, can be searched efficiently, and provides immediate feedback. For these reasons, the Internet might become even more easily integrated with the human mind than other external sources of knowledge and perhaps even more so than human transactive memory partners, promoting much stronger illusions of knowledge.

This is just one study, but it comes on the heels of a series of other studies on how access to the web and search engines is influencing the way our minds construct, or don’t construct, personal knowledge. A 2011 Columbia study found that the ready availability of online information reduces people’s retention of facts: “when people expect to have future access to [online] information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it,” a phenomenon which indicates “that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology.” A 2014 Fairfield University study found that simply taking digital photographs of an experience will tend to reduce your memory of the experience. The University of Colorado’s Adrian Ward has found evidence that the shift from “biological information storage” toward “digital information storage” may “have large-scale and long-term effects on the way people remember and process information.” He says that the internet “may act as a ‘supernormal stimulus,’ hijacking preexisting cognitive tendencies and creating novel outcomes.”

In “How Google Is Changing Your Brain,” a 2013 Scientific American article written with the late Daniel Wegner, Ward reported on experiments revealing that

using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set. A search result was recalled not as a date or name lifted from a Web page but as a product of what resided inside the study participants’ own memories, allowing them to effectively take credit for knowing things that were a product of Google’s search algorithms. The psychological impact of splitting our memories equally between the Internet and the brain’s gray matter points to a lingering irony. The advent of the “information age” seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before—when their reliance on the Internet means that they may know ever less about the world around them.

Ignorance is bliss, particularly when it’s mistaken for knowledge.

Image: detail of M. C. Escher’s “Man with Cuboid.”

5 thoughts on “The illusion of knowledge

  1. Brutus

    The studies report on what might be called “outsourced memory,” but I think there is growing evidence of “outsourced cognition” as well. (They’re interrelated but not quite the same things.) High levels of self-reporting error (overconfidence, etc.) are to be expected, especially when test subjects are primed with biasing information. At some point, I expect that we will have irrefutable evidence of lost skills and understanding, much the same way evidence of lost mobility and basic endurance resulting from our obesity epidemic could be compiled. Both kinds of loss could then be shaped to argue for — gasp! — lost productivity (knowledge workers who possess too little knowledge to be effective and laborers whose output is diminished).

  2. lee

    once we have brain implants that connect the brain directly to the internet, doesn’t this becomes a moot point? see here.

  3. NSAI

    Who taught you all this, Doctor? Suffering. The Plague, by Albert Camus.

    “During World War II, Camus went to Paris and joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement. It was in wartime Paris that Camus developed his philosophy of the absurd–the assertion that life ultimately has no rational meaning. While the philosophy of Camus’ fiction often tends to imply that no moral order actually has a rational basis, Camus himself did not act with moral indifference. Rather, since Camus does not draw a direct correlation between the lack of hope and despair, his philosophy can best be characterized as a form of optimism without hope . The absurd hero is a hero because he achieves the ultimate rebellion–that which resists the illusion of a rational order while also resisting despair.”

    I’m with the resistance.

  4. the cyclist

    I wonder if people who use power tools believe themselves to be stronger than they really are.

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