Could Search Engines Favor Certain Dunning-Krugers?

Getty Images | Aurich Lawson

Many of us make jokes about how we have externalized part of our brain to electronic devices. But according to a new article from the University of Texas to Adrian Ward of Austin, this is just a variation of something that has happened throughout human history. No one can ever learn everything they need to know. But that’s okay, according to Ward: “No one needs to know everything, they just need to know who knows.”

Over time, we have developed alternatives to find the person who has the information we need, relying on things like books and other publications. The internet just provides electronic equivalents, doesn’t it?

Not quite, according to Ward’s latest results. From the data it generated, it appears that search engines now return information so quickly and transparently that we tend to think that we remembered the information that we actually searched for. And it can give us unwarranted confidence in our ability to extract facts from our brains.

Search speed

Ward’s hypothesis is based on the idea that we probably categorize the recall process based on its ease. Browsing through all the extraneous information in a book to find the nugget we need can be overwhelming, even when the book is at hand. While it can sometimes be difficult to hold onto a fact in our memory, it is usually much more convenient. For things that are easy to remember, like the lyrics to boring pop songs from our high school years, it’s often instantaneous.

Of the two, according to Ward, Internet searches are more like memories, in that they are generally fast, don’t contain a lot of superfluous information, and are displayed through easy-to-process interfaces. “Thinking with Google,” he writes, “which provides information as discreetly as possible, can just seem like you’re thinking on your own. “

If so, doing research for information can be a lot more like pulling something out of our memory. And that could be misleading, because successful research would make us feel like our memory is larger than it actually is.

To test this hypothesis, Ward created a variety of information recall questions. He then had people respond, either from memory or using Google. Above this simple diagram were variations of the Recall Challenge that helped identify how people viewed a successful internet search.

Our self-esteem includes Google

The most basic experiment involved asking people to answer 10 questions using memory or internet research, and then taking a cognitive self-esteem test, which measures how subjects felt about their mental capacity. Those who were able to use Google had more questions on the right. But they came away with a heightened sense of their own abilities. They were also more likely than those who relied on their memory to say that they would pass a future test in which they could not use the Internet.

From there, Ward’s experiences diversified. In this case, both groups received the correct answers to the questions they were facing, which allowed them to judge their actual performance. They were then asked about their confidence in a future test, and again, Google users were more confident. In this case, however, the subjects were actually put through this future test, in which case it became clear that the Google-inflated trust was misplaced, as people deprived of the internet in the second round scored as poorly as everybody.

In another test, people who relied on memory learned that they got eight out of 10 correct answers, regardless of their actual performance. Those who believed in this score walked away with an exaggerated sense of trust that was roughly equal to that of people who used Google. Another test showed that this self-confidence evaporated if Google users were asked to write down any answers they could remove from memory before using Google. In other words, if they were forced to consider their memory limitations before using the search engine, subjects didn’t end up with an exaggerated sense of their performance.


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Rosemary S. Bishop