The Internet is a wonderful and wonderfully powerful place. Just think about it, if your parents needed an article to show their college friends that nah-i’m-totally-right-and-you’re-not (it’s a big part of college life) they had to go looking in a library — you have access to almost all of human knowledge with just a few key strokes.

Or a few minute’s walk.
Image via wikimedia

But it turns out that having such pervasive access to information may actually make us rely less on the knowledge we already have, altering how we think, found University of Waterloo Professor of Psychology Evan F. Risko in a recent study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition..

For the study, 100 participants were asked a series of general-knowledge questions (such as naming the capital of France.) For the first half of the test participants didn’t have access to the Internet, and would indicate whether they knew the answer or not. In the second half, they had Internet access and were required to look up the answers they reported they didn’t know.

In the end, the team found that when the subjects had access to the web they were 5 percent more likely to report they didn’t know an answer, and in some contexts, they reported feeling as though they knew less compared to the ones without access.

“With the ubiquity of the Internet, we are almost constantly connected to large amounts of information. And when that data is within reach, people seem less likely to rely on their own knowledge,” said Professor Risko, Canada Research Chair in Embodied and Embedded Cognition.

The team believes that giving people access to the internet might make it seem less acceptable to them to say that they know something but be incorrect. Another theory they considered is that people were more likely to say they didn’t know the answer because looking it up on the web gave them an opportunity to confirm their knowledge or satiate their curiosity, both highly rewarding processes.

“Our results suggest that access to the Internet affects the decisions we make about what we know and don’t know,” said Risko. “We hope this research contributes to our growing understanding of how easy access to massive amounts of information can influence our thinking and behaviour.”

Professor Risko says he plans to further the research in this area by investigating the factors that lead to individuals’ reduced willingness to respond when they have access to the web.

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