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How The Internet Is Making People Doubt Themselves

December 9, 2015, 6:08 PM UTC
Woman at desk, staring at computer screen
Jamie Grill—Getty Images

Here’s a quick test: What’s the capital of New York? Are you sure—or do you maybe want to check your answer?

New research shows people with access to the Internet are more likely to double-check their answers to the kinds of general knowledge questions they may already know.

In a study of about 100 people at the University of Waterloo in Canada, people were asked general knowledge questions like “What’s the capital of France?” or “Which is the largest ocean?”

Half the group was offered Internet backupand they were about 5% more likely to say they didn’t know the answer to a question. Psychologist Evan Risko, who co-authored the study, says that may be because having access to the Internet is like having a really smart friend at your fingertips… there’s a chance to confirm, so why not?

It’s the latest wrinkle in the growing chorus of voices weighing in on how spending more time on the Internet is changing the way people operate, as more and more people are plugged in throughout the day (about 36% of people under 30 years old are online “almost constantly”).

But all that time spent searching and scanning for answers to things people aren’t quite sure about can make them feel pretty smart at the end of the day. That was the finding of Yale doctoral candidate Matthew Fisher. His recent research showed that people who’ve been online claim to “know a lot more than they actually do.”

He says the Internet is becoming a really efficient strategy for storing knowledge, much like a group or a couple can rely on each other as a memory aid (this phenomenon is called transcative memory). But that kind of system can have “unintended consequences when we’re failing to distinguish what’s our own knowledge,” Fisher says.

And while people may have a pretty accurate ‘friend’ in the Internet, Risko says he’s curious to find out whether or not having that easy access means people are willing to struggle less on a given task.

…Care to check on that?

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Correction (2 pm ET): This article has been updated to correct the last name spelling of Matthew Fisher.