Recent studies on the “Google effect” add to evidence that the internet is making us dumber

One of the great debates in education spans more than two millennia.

Around 370 B.C., Plato wrote that his teacher Socrates fretted that writing things down would cause humans to become ignorant because they wouldn’t have to memorize anything. (Ironically, the only reason we know this is because it was written down in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” still available today.)

Albert Einstein argued the opposite in 1921. “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts,” the Nobel laureate said, according to his biographer Philipp Frank. “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

But neither of these great thinkers could anticipate how the debate would play out in the Age of Google. Not long after the search engine company was founded in 1998, psychologists began to wonder how the ability to have so much information instantly available was changing our brains. A seminal 2011 paper established the so-called “Google effect,” our tendency to forget information that we can easily look up on the internet.

The researchers didn’t actually study how people use Google or any internet search engine. Instead they drafted a list of trivia items, such as the fact that an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain. Then, in a series of experiments, they documented how university students were less likely to recall these facts when they thought they had saved them in a computer file for future reference. Students who were told they wouldn’t be able to refer to the trivia later did much better on recall assessments.

“Participants apparently did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statements they had read,” the researchers wrote, and they believed that this is what was happening to the rest of us every day with Google. “Because search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up.”

The study made a huge splash in the journal Science, followed by popular articles about the “Google effect.” Would we all suffer from digital amnesia and cease to learn things that were readily available at our fingertips in seconds? People argued about how serious the problem was in a modern replay of the debate that captivated Socrates and Einstein. Is it better to not waste precious brain space on inane trivia and free the mind for more substantial thoughts? Others argued some things are worth remembering even if we can look them up, and worried that our brains would atrophy without the discipline of memorization.

But here the narrative goes sideways, as it often does in scientific exploration. Other researchers couldn’t replicate the Google effect when they repeated similar memory experiments. In a 2018 article, 24 researchers declared that the Google effect was one of many dubious claims in social sciences. That same year, the veracity of the Google effect was debated at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, where scholars described repeated failures. Many researchers said they didn’t find that people were able to remember deleted information better than saved information. That conference generated a flurry of essays and commentaries about the confusion over how the internet was changing human cognition and memory.

The skepticism in the research community clashed with our gut feelings. So many of us, including this writer, have had the experience of quickly forgetting information that we have Googled. The debate generated yet more studies that are starting to refine our understanding of the Google effect and suggest ways to cope with it.

Subsequent researchers have since been able to replicate the Google effect when they tweaked the trivia experiment. In a paper published in 2021, University of California Santa Cruz researchers began by adding a confirmation step. Participants first took a practice quiz where they could refer to the trivia they had saved in a file. Later, when researchers intentionally crashed the save feature, those participants were terrible at remembering the facts. Participants who weren’t expecting to be able to refer to the information later recalled more trivia than those who were planning to refer to their notes, which had vanished.

Still, no actual Googling took place in those adjusted experiments. More interesting are experiments that directly study internet search. Another 2021 paper, “Information without knowledge: the effects of Internet search on learning” directly compared internet searching to giving people the answers. One might imagine that the active quest of seeking answers should improve our absorption of information, but the opposite happened. Those who were simply given the information on computer screens and told to read it learned more.

“When people see how to reliably access new information using Google, they become less likely to store that information in their own memory,” the authors concluded.

The problem was not that the Googlers had failed in their online research. Researchers confirmed that the Googlers had found the exact same information that other study participants had been given to read. For example, participants would receive the following instruction: “Topic: Autism Treatment Options. Please search online for the page with the text about this topic to confirm details about it.” They were reminded that the quiz questions would be based on the information from the website. Participants searched for the article and read it. To prove they had navigated to the correct place, participants had to copy and paste the URL from the website they accessed.

The researchers also tested whether there was a difference between Googling and clicking on internet links. The links sent people directly to the web pages that had the correct information. Again, the Google searchers lost; they performed worse on an assessment than those who accessed the exact same information through a link.

Across five different experiments, those who searched the internet not only scored lower in a quiz, but they were also just as confident that they had mastered the material. In some cases, the Google searchers were significantly more confident.

There are two lessons from this study. The first is that the stuff we’re Googling isn’t sticking in our memories and is quickly forgotten. It’s far more direct proof of the Google effect than the earlier trivia studies. The second lesson is that we are also overestimating how much we’ve learned from Google searches. That overconfidence is bad for learning because if we think we already know something, we might study less.

Peps McCrea, a U.K. educator and a writer, brought this Google search study to my attention in his newsletter, “Evidence Snacks.” His advice to teachers: “Where possible, it’s probably best that we ‘just teach it’ rather than getting our students to ‘just Google it’.”

That advice runs counter to the notion that students generally learn best when they discover answers for themselves. By no means does this study suggest that all inquiry learning is wrongheaded, but it certainly does suggest that there is a time and place for direct, explicit instruction – especially when the alternative is having students conduct research themselves over the internet.

McCrea also highlighted another 2021 paper, which suggests better ways to use Google. In “Answer First or Google First? Using the Internet in ways that Enhance, not Impair, One’s Subsequent Retention of Needed Information,” study participants who attempted a computer programming task before consulting Google for help outperformed participants who were allowed to search Google right away.

The benefit of attempting a problem before Googling was larger for people who already had computer programming experience. That’s consistent with a large body of cognitive science research that shows the importance of prior knowledge. Without it, it’s hard to absorb new information because we can’t connect it to what we already know. (Socrates had a point; knowing things matters for learning.)

But human nature is to do the opposite and Google before trying. In a 2022 paper, “Thinking first versus googling first: Preferences and consequences,” the same authors confirmed that people have better recall when they think before they Google, but four out of five participants preferred to Google first. It might seem strange that thinking first helps even if you don’t know the answer. But that’s consistent with research dating back decades showing that even a failed attempt to remember something can boost the learning of new information. An initial act of thought helps to facilitate the formation of memories.

These studies don’t resolve the old debate of what we ought to memorize that engaged Socrates and Einstein. But it seems worthwhile to pause before Googling and take a guess. Even a wrong guess may help you remember the right information after you Google. And who knows, maybe the arcana will add to your reservoir of knowledge and will ultimately help you learn something far more worthwhile.

This story about the Google effect was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.

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