When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t know? Just Google it.” We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re even the incessant Internet-searching-friend that’s quick to remind anyone around you that there’s a little magic search bar that gives out infinite knowledge. Then again, you could be the 50-something that relies on family and friends as their only source of information. Either way, I probably don’t want to be around you.
Of course there’s a huge gap of people between the two groups I just mentioned, and odds are, you fall smack dab in the middle of the bell curve. Some days someone may ask you something that you’re quick to run an Internet search on and report back to them. Other days you may try and sit with the question, running through old concepts you’re still vaguely familiar with to come away with an answer. It all seems like a crazy and random sort of process, at least until psychology looks into it.
So, what are we actually doing when we look to the Internet for answers? We’re letting it do the work for us, essentially taking a load off our brains. Instead of racking our heads for an answer, a quick Internet search gives us (probably) better results, and all at hardly any energy expense. This is why the Internet continues to build its knowledge base, and why we continue to rely on it more and more. It’s become our partner in memory, and we’re more likely to remember where and how something can be accessed than the actual information.
Think of cognitive offloading like outsourcing for your brain – it’s cheap, quick, it takes a weight off your shoulders, and works just fine. But at what cost? When does the world wide web start to do more harm than good, if ever? If it does, will you even be aware of the pissed off hordes of clients calling? Well, according to a new study, using the Internet as a means of cognitive offloading is already affecting our decision-making, and we don’t even realize it! Let’s see why.
A recent study published in the journal Memory looked to see if using the Internet to access information influenced a person’s propensity to use it when making a future decision. Two experiments were performed, each looking at the question a little differently. The first experiment took two different groups (plus a baseline condition) and gave them some mid-range trivia questions, with one group using Google and the other just their memory to answer.
The two groups were then prescribed another set of trivia questions, this time they were a little easier. The participants were given an extra option this go-around though, they could either use the Internet or just their memory banks. Like clockwork, the results showed that the participants who had already used the Internet were significantly more likely to go back. Even after the experiment was replicated with breaks of playing Tetris in-between questions, cognitive offloading reared its head as the people who had previously used the Internet usually went back to it with haste.
When One Just Isn’t Enough
A second experiment looked to make things a little more difficult. Participants were sat down on a couch this time and told that if they wanted to use the Internet they’d have to get up and walk over to it. Not once either, but every time they wanted to do an interwebz search. They’d have to make the 2 meter trek over to the computer/iPod station, find the answer, go sit back down, and listen to the next question. Sounds like a hassle, right?
Wrong. The participants from the Internet condition once again reliably chose to consult their knowledgeable cloud-based partner instead of using their own memory. This time, the amount of time that passed between the question and the decision to revert back to the Internet was also measured, and wouldn’t ya know it, the Internet condition not only chose to use it more, they took far less time to make the decision to do so.
Wrapping it up
Okay, so how much does Internet-based cognitive offloading affect our lives? We don’t realize it, but our behaviors are often being chosen for us beneath the veil of our minds. What you do today affects what you choose to do tomorrow, and your decisions right now are consequently affected by your past. You’re a beautiful, unique jumble of neurons, but your choices can still be influenced without knowing it.
Sometimes using the Internet can be handy. You can find psychology articles like this one that give you some info you wouldn’t have otherwise known. Other times you may find yourself perusing cat videos until early morning, like every night. Okay, maybe it’s just me. Just know that when you turn to the Internet, you’re gonna be much more apt to do so again.