Sparrow, B., Liu, J., and Wegner, D. M. (2011, 5 Aug). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043): 776-778.
abstract only, tho I have access via LSE.
The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
Here are my notes & quotes:
Storing information externally is nothing particularly novel, even before the advent of computers. In any long-term relationship, a teamwork environment, or other ongoing group, people typically develop a group or transactive memory, a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information… The present research explores whether having online access to search engines, databases, and the like, has become a primary transactive memory source in itself.
results from experiment 1: when asked difficult trivia questions, do people think about computers more quickly?
Although the concept of knowledge in general seems to prime thoughts of computers, even when answers are known, not knowing the answer to general-knowledge questions primes the need to search for the answer, and subsequently computer interference is particularly acute.
results of experiment 2: will people only remember keywords when they think they’ll have access to a computer to look up information int he future?
Participants apparently did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statements they had read. Because search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up.
they were more affected about whether they’d be able to look something up later than whether they had to remember it at all.
results of experiment 3: do people remember things better when they know if/where info is saved?
…believing that one won’t have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself, whereas believing the information was saved externally enhances memory for the fact that the information could be accessed, at least in general.
having a search function - on the web or on a computer - means that you won’t use cognitive capacity to remember where you saw it, but knowing something’s been erased will use “memory demands”.
finally, results of experiment 4: do people remember where saved information can be found?
“where” was prioritized in memory, with the advantage going to “where” when “what” was forgotten…This is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), they are more likely to remember where to find it than to remember the details of the item. One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.
and their conclusions:
..processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology.
we are learning what the computer “knows” and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer based memories. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.
and the kicker:
We have become dependent on [our gadgets] to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and co-workers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend.