‘Google effect’ leads to changes in memory

A new study suggests people will forget information they know they can locate at a later date.

New research reveals that if people expect something to remain easily available, they are more likely to remember where they found the information than the information itself–but if they don’t think it will be easy to find again, they are more likely to remember the information. The findings could have huge implications for teaching and learning as instruction moves from traditional classroom stereotypes, such as memorization, to a more collaborative, mobile learning experience.

Columbia University researcher and psychologist Betsy Sparrow was watching the 1944 movie Gaslight one evening and wondered who the actress was playing the maid. So she reached for her computer and Googled it.

That set Sparrow to thinking: before the internet, how did we answer these questions?

The internet has taken a major place in the circle of friends where people look for information, she concluded in “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” which appeared in the July 14 online edition of the journal Science.

With colleagues Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard University, Sparrow explains that the internet has become a primary form of what psychologists call transactive memory–recollections that are external to us but that we know when and how to access.

The researchers say the study is the first of its kind into the impact of search engines on human memory organization.

Using the internet “does not mean we’re becoming less intelligent,” Sparrow said, but that we are becoming pretty sophisticated at finding the best information.

Since the advent of search engines, humans are reorganizing the way they remember things, said Sparrow.

The human brain relies on the internet for memory in much the same way a person might rely on the memory of a friend, family member, or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.

The research reveals that we forget things we are confident we can find on the internet. We are more likely to remember things we think are not available online. And we are better able to remember where to find something on the internet than we are at remembering the information itself.

According to Sparrow, a greater understanding of how memory works in a world with search engines has the potential to change teaching and learning in all fields.

Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors, or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization, said Sparrow. And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding.


The research was carried out in four studies.

First, participants were asked to answer a series of difficult trivia questions. Then they were immediately tested to see if they had increased difficulty with a basic color naming task, which showed participants words in either blue or red. Their reaction time to search engine-related words, like Google and Yahoo, indicated that, after the difficult trivia questions, participants were thinking of internet search engines as the way to find information.

Next, the trivia questions were turned into statements. Participants read the statements and typed them into a computer. Participants who were told that the information would be saved on the computer had a more difficult time remembering the statements than those who believed the information would be erased.

Then, the same trivia statements were used to test memory of both the information itself and where the information could be found. Participants were allowed to take notes. Those who believed the information would be saved in specific computer folders had more trouble remembering the trivia statements than those participants who believed the information would be erased.

Finally, participants believed all trivia statements that they typed would be saved into one of five generic folders with specific names. When asked to recall the folder names, they did so at greater rates than they recalled the trivia statements themselves. The researchers noted that a deeper analysis revealed that people do not necessarily remember where to find certain information when they remember what it was, and that they particularly tend to remember where to find information when they can’t remember the information itself.

Human memory is “adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology,” the authors note in the report.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and Columbia’s department of psychology.

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