We’d all like to think we remember what Burkina Faso used to be called or who Cheddar Man is without Wikipedia, or that we’d identify red eyeliner as the best way to fake pink eye without Yahoo! forum malingerers, or that we could certify whether or not Jeff Goldblum lent his timeless smarm to Mr. Show without IMDB. But, after a minute or two of obstinance — no, I know this — we capitulate faster than an American president trying to boost his approval rating. Because when some deliciously unimportant statistic is a mere screen-swipe away, the meaning of knowledge changes. In fact, according to a new study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, people say they know less when they can look something up online.
Psychologists at the University of Waterloo asked 100 participants. half of whom had internet access, whether they knew the answers to general-knowledge questions (e.g., the capital of France). Those with Googling privileges had to look up any information they said they didn’t know, while the wifi-deprived could shrug and move on. Researchers found that those who could fall back on Siri were five-or-so percent more likely to say they didn’t know an answer and, “in some contexts,” said they felt they knew less compared to participants without internet access.
"We hope this research contributes to our growing understanding of how easy access to massive amounts of information can influence our thinking and behaviour,” said study author Evan Risko in a press release.
Study authors, according to the press release, suggested that, with such easy access to right answers, we feel it’s less acceptable to profess knowledge and be wrong. Or, they cautioned, it’s possible we admit ignorance because we get satisfaction from finding correct answers online.
Or maybe we don’t see encyclopedic knowledge as the commodity it once was. If we can all retrieve the same random factoids quickly and easily, spitting out lists of Michelin-starred restaurants and reclusive dictators becomes less impressive. How will know-it-alls remind everyone of their value — through applying that knowledge? Let’s see if Google knows the answer...