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The Search Effect

Throughout history, we have relied on other people to reduce our personal memory load, a phenomenon called transactive memory. If we know that someone else knows a particular piece of information, we don’t have to remember it ourselves. We just need to ask them. But there is a significant germane load to do this. We have to remember who knows what we need, find them, hope they are available, ask them, and process the answer. A similar germane load exists when we use reference sources. We have to remember what source has the information, go to the library (or our personal bookshelf), get the encyclopedia/dictionary/textbook, look up the information, and process it.

Transactive memory is a psychological hypothesis first proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985 as a response to earlier theories of “group mind” such as groupthink.[1] A transactive memory system is a mechanism through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge.

A new kind of transactive memory has emerged with the prevalence of mobile technology and ubiquitous Internet access. With the smartphone in our pocket, we have 24/7 access and a quick query to find whatever information we need. Transactive memory without the germane load.

My Take

But this seamlessness creates a fundamental difference with our traditional transactive memory. I was fortunate to come across some foundational new research by Matthew Fisher at Yale while listening to the You Are Not So Smart podcast (Which BTW – you should all be following. It is a great listen.).

Because the germane load is so low, we quickly forget that we had to go to the Internet to access the information. We unconsciously attribute the information to our own knowledge and expertise. Basically, we take the credit for ourselves. This leads to an inflated sense of self-knowledge. We think we know more than we really do. We have more confidence in our knowledge.

The problem is that we don’t just have more confidence in the fact that we looked up; we also think we understand the topic more deeply. This means that when we make important decisions (such as voting), we have more confidence in our decisions than our actual knowledge (even with the facts available on Google) should imply. This can lead to all sorts of unfortunate errors and decisions. One of the aspects of Matthew’s research that I enjoy is the wide range of topics that he tests out and the influence is incredibly generalizable.

Your Turn

Think about how much you know. Do you really know it? Or do you just know that you can Google it whenever you need to? Perhaps this isn’t important when it comes to remembering the date the Magna Carta was first signed. Or even your cousin’s birthday. But if we are overconfident in our voting, investing, career choices, health care decisions, and so on . . . well . . ., I will leave that up to you to decide.

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