First of all: no! No, this isn’t an Internet is making us dumber-study. The title of the press release is making it a bit too spectacular: “Cognitive offloading: How the Internet is increasingly taking over human memory.” The study actually confirms previous work by Sparrow et al: our memory – or rather how we use our memory – is changing in the way that we learn how to use the internet as a kind of external, additional memory when it’s present. In this way the study tells us more about behavior, rather than about how our memory works as the real result is that using a certain method for fact finding has a marked influence on the probability of future repeat behavior.
The present results suggest that using the Internet as an information source influences the extent to which a person uses the Internet as an information source in the future. Participants instructed to answer one set of trivia questions with the help of the Internet were significantly more likely to answer a new, relatively easier, set of trivia questions with the help of the Internet than were participants instructed to answer the first set from memory.
Maybe one of the best sentences from the article is this one:
It remains to be seen, however, whether this increased reliance on the Internet is in any way different from the type of increased reliance one might experience on other information sources, such as books or people.
From the press release:
Our increasing reliance on the Internet and the ease of access to the vast resource available online is affecting our thought processes for problem solving, recall and learning. In a new article published in the journal Memory, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign have found that ‘cognitive offloading’, or the tendency to rely on things like the Internet as an aide-mémoire, increases after each use. We might think that memory is something that happens in the head but increasingly it is becoming something that happens with the help of agents outside the head. Benjamin Storm, Sean Stone & Aaron Benjamin conducted experiments to determine our likelihood to reach for a computer or smartphone to answer questions. Participants were first divided into two groups to answer some challenging trivia questions — one group used just their memory, the other used Google. Participants were then given the option of answering subsequent easier questions by the method of their choice.
The results revealed that participants who previously used the Internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory. Participants also spent less time consulting their own memory before reaching for the Internet; they were not only more likely to do it again, they were likely to do it much more quickly. Remarkably 30% of participants who previously consulted the Internet failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.
Lead author Dr Benjamin Storm commented, “Memory is changing. Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”
This research suggests that using a certain method for fact finding has a marked influence on the probability of future repeat behaviour. Time will tell if this pattern will have any further reaching impacts on human memory than has our reliance on other information sources. Certainly the Internet is more comprehensive, dependable and on the whole faster than the imperfections of human memory, borne out by the more accurate answers from participants in the internet condition during this research. With a world of information a Google search away on a smartphone, the need to remember trivial facts, figures, and numbers is inevitably becoming less necessary to function in everyday life.
The last sentence is a bridge too far imho, confusing information and knowledge as ever. Luckily the article is better in discussing this:
It is also worth noting that the costs and benefits of altering one’s reliance on the Internet are likely to vary as a function of a number of factors, including an individual’s expertise within a domain. Although the Internet may be effective in helping people access certain types of information, it may be much less effective in helping people access other types of information. In such cases, using the Internet to access information could prove detrimental. Furthermore, there are forms of expertise that require the possession of vast amounts of knowledge and the ability to rapidly and flexibly use that information is unlikely to be attained when it is stored externally
Abstract of the study:
The ways in which people learn, remember, and solve problems have all been impacted by the Internet. The present research explored how people become primed to use the Internet as a form of cognitive offloading. In three experiments, we show that using the Internet to retrieve information alters a person’s propensity to use the Internet to retrieve other information. Specifically, participants who used Google to answer an initial set of difficult trivia questions were more likely to decide to use Google when answering a new set of relatively easy trivia questions than were participants who answered the initial questions from memory. These results suggest that relying on the Internet to access information makes one more likely to rely on the Internet to access other information.