Online, everyone is an expert. Twitter has become host to hundreds of millions of virologists and epidemiologists. As I write, thousands of new Kazakhstan analysts will no doubt be logging in for duty; every emerging news story creates a new community of strident online commentators. It’s often noted that this happens because social media rewards certainty and strong takes: there’s little appetite online for nuance, and no one’s interested in knowing that you don’t know. A less well-documented and intriguing phenomenon is that simply the way we access information online might be contributing to our intellectual overconfidence and inflated sense of expertise.
In a series of experiments published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Adrian F Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, explored how using Google to answer general knowledge questions affected how people rated their own intelligence. Compared with participants who had to answer a general knowledge quiz without using the internet, those who could google their answers were more likely to agree with statements such as “I am smart” and “I have a better memory than most people”. They were also more likely to overestimate how well they’d do in a quiz if they couldn’t use Google.
People have always relied on external sources for knowledge – if you didn’t know something yourself, you’d consult a knowledgeable friend or relative, a colleague or paid expert, a book. The difference with consulting Google, Ward argues, is that the process is so quick and seamless that people forget they have done so. They begin to mistake the internet’s knowledge as their own. “In a world in which the answer to virtually any question can be called up at a moment’s notice, people may frequently fail to recognise the limits of their own knowledge,” he writes.
Most of us have experienced the feeling of googling something you think you already know. It might feel easier to google “capital of Kyrgyzstan” than to dredge it up from your memory, and when the answer appears you might think “of course, Bishkek!” But this feeling of knowing might be mistaken: Ward found that when people were required to write down an answer to a question before checking it using Google, they became more accurate judges of their own performance. Similarly, even introducing a 25-second delay to Google searches during a general knowledge quiz deflated overconfidence, by making people more aware that they were reliant on the internet. The more habitual googling becomes, the more invisible it is to us, Ward believes.
There’s more going on, too: other research has shown that when you know information is available online, you’re less likely to remember it yourself. “In a world in which searching the internet is often faster and easier than searching one’s own memory, people may ironically know less but believe they know more,” Ward writes.
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This widespread intellectual overconfidence might help explain the polarisation of our politics, and the rise of viral misinformation, he adds. If you believe your online searches are simply confirming what you already know, you might be less likely to scrutinise the information presented. One study found that when people held extreme political attitudes about complex policies, asking them to explain the policies in detail led them to adopt more moderate positions. The authors suggested that people’s mistaken sense of understanding the causal processes underlying policies contributes to polarisation. In a similar vein, a study published by Nature has the self-explanatory, gently trolling title: “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most”.
But it’s easier to point fingers at others whose views are more extreme and conspiratorial than your own than to interrogate why you are so confident in your own views and intellectual superiority. After all, we tend to only describe positions as “extreme” when we disagree with them. Most people believe themselves to be more intelligent than the average person – we must often be mistaken. What a privilege it is to have a world of information at your fingertips; it’s no wonder we are tempted to feel like small gods when we carry in our pockets this vast wealth of human scholarship – but old-fashioned values such as intellectual humility, open-mindedness and curiosity have never stopped being important, they’ve just become harder to uphold and easier to forget.