Search engines like Google or Yahoo make people think they are smarter than they actually are because they have the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, psychologists at Yale University have found.
Browsing the internet for information gives people a ‘widely inaccurate’ view of their own intelligence and could lead to over-confidence when making decisions, experts warn.
In a series of experiments, participants who had searched for information on the internet believed they were far more knowledgeable about a subject that those who had learned by normal routes, such as reading a book or talking to a tutor. Internet users also believed their brains were sharper.
“The Internet is such a powerful environment, where you can enter any question, and you basically have access to the world’s knowledge at your fingertips,” said lead researcher Matthew Fisher, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University.
“It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source. When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet.”
More than 1,000 students took part in a range of experiments aimed at gauging the psycholgocal impact of searching on the internet.
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.
Psychology professor Frank Keil, of Yale University, said the study showed that the cognitive effects of “being in search mode” on the internet were so powerful that people still feel smarter even when their online searches did not help.
And the growing use of smartphones may exacerbate the problem because an internet search is always within reach.
“With the internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know,” added Mr Fisher.
The researchers also believe that an inflated sense of personal knowledge also could be dangerous in the political realm or other areas involving high-stakes decisions.
“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,” Mr Fisher added.
“The Internet is an enormous benefit in countless ways, but there may be some trade-offs that aren’t immediately obvious and this may be one of them.
“Accurate personal knowledge is difficult to achieve, and the Internet may be making that task even harder.”