Access to the web is changing how we think, according to a new study. Those who have access to the internet are more likely to consult it rather than their own memories when asked certain questions, the researchers found.
"With the ubiquity of the internet, we are almost constantly connected to large amounts of information. And when that data is within reach, people seem less likely to rely on their own knowledge," University of Waterloo psychology professor Evan F. Risko, the lead scientist of his study, said in an article on the school's website.
For the study, the scientists asked about 100 participants—about 50 with internet access and another 50 without — a set of questions relating to general knowledge, such as "naming the capital of France," according to the article. All of the respondents had to say whether they knew the answer or not.
Participants who had access to the internet were required to "look up the answer when they responded that they did not know the answer," according to the report.
The scientists found that "the people who had access to the web were about 5% more likely to say that they did not know the answer to the question," the article says.
And those with internet access said in some cases that they felt "as though they knew less compared to the people without access."
In other words, those with internet access appeared to be less reliant on thought and memory in the sessions. In many cases they didn't bother to come up with their own answer—they simply depended on the internet to give them the correct one.
Those with access to the internet did not rely on their own memories to find the answer, other than to remember how to perform an internet query, of course.
"Access to the internet might make it less acceptable to say you know something but are incorrect," the Waterloo article speculates.
It's also possible, however, that the participants were also using the internet to confirm that their answers were correct, and that they thought they didn't know the answer when they actually did, the article suggests.
Regardless, the presence of the internet caused a change in how individuals approach answering general-knowledge questions.
Another possibility for the results is that the respondents just wanted to query the internet to "confirm their answer or resolve their curiosity, and the process of finding out is rewarding," the article says.
But there was a lack of "willingness to volunteer answers to questions" as a result of immediate access to the internet, the scientists say.
Knowing less when Internet is available
Answers were more accurate when they were offered when the internet was present, because people weren't volunteering answers from memory. So it wasn't a bad thing that they did depend on the internet—quality went up.
"Our results suggest that access to the internet affects the decisions we make about what we know and don't know," says Risko.
The respondents certainly felt they knew less when the internet was around, Risko thinks.
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