Thanks to the internet, we have at our fingertips more information than previous generations could ever have imagined. Does that mean, however, that we know more than ever before? We certainly seem to think so, as a team of researchers at Yale University discovered.
In a series of experiments, Matthew Fisher and colleagues asked participants to answer some questions, for example, “How does a zipper work?” Half were told to use the internet to help them find answers and half were instructed to answer the questions without online access. Everyone was then asked a series of questions about topics unrelated to the initial material — for example, “How do tornadoes form?”
Before they answered this second set, however, participants were asked to estimate how well they thought they would be able to answer those (unrelated) questions.
Those who had used the internet believed they would do a better job, even though their searches had no bearing on the subsequent questions, and even — in later experiments — when their searches failed to come up with any relevant information at all.
These results suggest that the internet could be creating a false sense of knowing. It seems the mere act of looking things up online causes us to think we know more about everything, even topics we’ve never investigated. What’s the best way to guard against this false sense of wisdom?
First, become more of a sceptic. Question the “facts” you find online. Is the source reliable? Try to be aware, too, of the beliefs and opinions you hold before looking up material. This will protect you from falling victim to “confirmation bias” — the tendency to accept what you already agree with, while discarding information that contradicts your pre-existing beliefs.
Second, work with what you learn. Write it down, or say it out loud. Simply viewing material on screen requires little effort. It’s only when you repeat it that the information becomes encoded deeply enough for you to remember it. Third, relate the material to something you know. When we relate what we’re learning to personal experience, we’re more likely to remember it.
Finally, use the material. For example, if you look up the meaning of a word, you’re more likely to remember it if you build that word into your conversation several times over the next few days. The internet is a rich and wonderful database, but if you want to own any of its wealth, you must do more than click your mouse.