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Journal of Experimental Psychology
2015, vol. 144, no. 3, 674-687
Matthew Fisher, Mariel K. Goddu, Frank C. Keil
“Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge”

Human beings can create systems for distributing tasks and information. Families and businesses do this sort of thing: work and information is distributed across all the members of the system. This permits the system to do more than any individual could do alone. Or to quote our authors,

By reducing redundancy, transactive memory systems work to encode, store and retrieve information more effectively than could be done by any individual.

Id., at p. 674. Now, our transactive partner in this memory storage and recall process could be a technological: indeed, the Internet has taken over as perhaps the primary source of information storage.

But the Internet goes far beyond what a spouse or business partner can provide in terms of information: it is always there, always ready, always responsive, nearly instantaneous and provides seemingly inexhaustible resources:

The Internet has been described as a “supernormal stimulus” in that its breadth and immediacy far surpass any naturally occurring transactive partner to which our minds have adapted.

Id. at p. 675. Thus, not surprisingly, the Internet has a profound effect upon how we understand our possession of knowledge. But rather than humbling us, the Internet plays to our pride and causes us to over-evaluate our self-understanding:

And in the case of the Internet, an especially immediate and ubiquitous memory partner, there may be especially large knowledge overestimations. As people underestimate how much they are relying on the Internet, success at finding information on the Internet may be conflated with personally mastered information, leading Internet users to erroneously include knowledge stored outside their own heads as their own.

Id. at p. 675.

The authors of the study note that there may be dangers in this freely accessible information. This unnoticed tendency to overestimate our intellectual abilities is coupled to a decreasing ability to retain and access “internal” information.

To draw this point out further, the Internet seems to have the ability to make us increasingly vulnerable to information: (1) we have decreasing ability to critique this information (granted the question of critique was not tested in the study, however, that seems like an inherent trouble with an atrophied cognitive mechanism: one merely “finds” the information, rather than segregates the information; and, the hideous ability to manipulate public opinion almost instantly through the “news” media seems proof of this point); and (2) when we ingest this information we are not realizing that it was sourced outside of ourselves, but rather come to believe that this is our “own” information.