The web makes it easy to search for just about anything at the press of a button. People tend to imagine they are smarter than they are thanks to the ease of using search engines like Google.

Google
Image credit: Carlos Luna via flickr

A recent study by Matthew Fisher (a doctoral student studying cognitive science psychology at Yale University) was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Fisher’s study started with a small survey that asked questions like, “Why are there leap years?” and, “How does a zipper work?”

A closer look at Fisher’s study

In the study, he then asked his subjects to rate how well they could answer a question unrelated to the original question. The subjects who were allowed to search online rated their knowledge higher than those who were not allowed to search. In order to explain why internet searchers have an inflated sense of knowledge, Fisher created follow-up experiments with two different groups of people. He requested that subjects rate their knowledge before the test, and there was no difference between the subjects’ ratings. After the study, the internet search people gave their knowledge better ratings than others.

Fisher’s next goal was to ensure subjects on both ends saw the same information. He then told the internet group to visit the scientificamerican.com page. The non-search group was also sent to the same page. Fisher then confirmed that both groups visited the website. His study found that the internet search group still rated their knowledge higher than the group who just viewed information.

Techniques used in the Google search study

In Fisher’s study, he also compared different search engines (including Google) and required online searchers to use filters. He also re-worded his questions to specify that he was looking for the user’s knowledge, not the internet’s knowledge.

He summed up his study by saying people are unlikely to explain their shortcomings. They are not aware of the quality of explanation or argument quality they can produce.