Google Effect

Exocortex

The Google effect is the tendency to forget information that can be easily found using internet search engines such as Google, instead of remembering it.

The phenomenon was described and named by researchers Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner in 2011. Having easy access to the Internet, their study showed, makes people less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online. People can still remember things they cannot find online, and how to find what they need on the Internet. Sparrow said this made the Internet a type of transactive memory. One result of this phenomenon is dependence on the Internet; if an online connection is lost, the researchers said, it is similar to losing a friend.

The study included four experiments conducted with students at Columbia and Harvard. In part one, subjects had to answer trivia questions, followed by naming the colors of words, some of which related to searching on the Internet. In part two, the subjects read statements related to the trivia questions and had to remember what they read. In phase three, the subjects had to remember the details of the statements based on whether they believed the information could be found somewhere, whether it could be found in a specific place, or whether it could not be found. In the final phase, the subjects believed the statements would be stored in folders. The research concluded that people can remember information better if they do not know where to find it, and they can remember how to find what they need if they cannot remember the information. Sparrow said, ‘We’re not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore. But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that’s kind of amazing.’

The internet makes information almost instantaneously available, in a wide variety of locations (even more so with the advent of smartphones), in a way that has never been possible with books, which are not always readily available. However, such an effect was mentioned as far back as ancient Greece. In ‘The Phaedrus,’ Plato quotes Socrates as saying something similar about writing and extrapolates on how this affects real knowledge, i.e truth and wisdom: ‘…And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.’

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