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Searching the Internet Creates an Illusion of Knowledge

A new study finds merely looking things up on the Web increases our belief in our own knowledge—even with topics unrelated to our search.
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(Illustration: faithie/Shutterstock)

(Illustration: faithie/Shutterstock)

Surely you have noticed: A lot of people who have no idea what they are talking about are oddly certain of their superior knowledge. While this disconnect has been a problem throughout human history, new research suggests a ubiquitous feature of our high-tech world—the Internet—has made matters much worse.

In a series of studies, a Yale University research team led by psychologist Matthew Fisher shows that people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know—even regarding topics that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.

This illusion of knowledge appears to be "driven by the act of searching itself," they write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Apparently conflating seeking information online with racking one's brain, people consistently mistake "outsourced knowledge for internal knowledge."

The researchers describe nine experiments, which consistently find evidence of this dynamic, and gradually pinpoint its psychological roots.

The first experiment featured approximately 200 Americans recruited online. They were presented with four explanatory questions, such as "How does a zipper work?" Half were instructed to look up the answers on the Internet, while the others were told to figure them out "without using any outside sources."

Afterwards, all participants were given four questions on topics unrelated to the first set, such a "How do tornadoes form?" and "Why are cloudy nights warmer?" They were then asked to rate, on a one-to-seven scale, how well they could answer detailed questions similar to those.

"Participants who had looked up explanations on the Internet ... rated themselves as being able to give significantly better explanations to the questions in the unrelated domains," the researchers report. "The effect was observable across all six domains for which participants were asked to assess their knowledge."

Follow-up experiments duplicated these results under different conditions, such as when people were asked to assess the level of their knowledge both before and after the Internet-search portion of the test. The effect was also found when those looking things up on the Web were directed to specific sites, and those who did not use the Internet were provided with the precise information found on those pages. Those who did the searching still thought of themselves as more knowledgeable.

In a fascinating variation, 233 people performed the same experiment described above with a twist at the end. Rather than assessing their own knowledge, they looked at a series of brain-scan images indicating "varying levels of activation" and asked which best corresponded to their own cerebral activity as they considered the second set of questions.

Those who had just searched the Internet chose images with higher levels of activation than those who had not. This suggests they believed their brains were working harder than the people who did not have access to the Web.

Further experiments showed this effect persisted "even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers, or even any results at all." Whether it proves successful or not, the act of searching appears to trigger an utterly unjustified belief in one's own knowledge—which, given the increasingly popular habit of instinctively looking online to answer virtually any question, is a bit terrifying.

So, before falling into the trap of believing you're an expert in almost anything, keep in mind that your personal knowledge about a given subject, and the information you can easily find on the Internet, are distinctly different things.

After all, the Bible says "Seek, and ye shall find," not "Seek, and ye shall become omniscient."

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.