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Google- How It’s Changing the Way We Remember

How many times have you found yourself googling a question that you know you’ve heard the answer to before, but you just couldn’t remember it? Or have you ever wondered why you just couldn’t recall a small factoid that you read about in a news article the other day? Probably quite often, right?

Well, the internet may be to blame. A new phenomenon associated with our ability to remember things that we believe to be easily accessible through a quick internet search has emerged and has been coined the “google effect” based on the popular search engine. The internet can be thought of as a memory storage system outside of our own brain- like how a USB drive is an external memory storage device.

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Cognitive Resources and Memory

Everyone has a limited amount of cognitive resources; everyone has the ability to focus on only a few things at once. Because of this, we subconsciously pick and choose what to devote our attention to and what tasks require the most effort. With the introduction of the internet, we are more likely to believe that the information will be available to us at anytime, so we are less likely to focus our attention on attempting to commit the information to memory (Huebner, 2013). This means that the information will be attended to- recognized and acknowledged- but not encoded- converted into a mental representation that can be retrieved quickly at a later time.

In order for a memory to be remembered, a series of steps need to occur. First, the item must be given attention. You must not only see or hear the item, but you must also recognize it as an item that should be remembered. After attention is given the item, you have to then encode and store it in memory. This means that you recognize any patterns in the item and store the memory as those patterns.

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For example, let’s say you just read a long article about pine trees. Instead of storing each individual fact, your mental representation of the information may look more like a concept map or a collage of information that you deem the most important. Finally, you will need to engage in retrieval. Memory retrieval is when you do a mental search through everything you remembered about the pine trees, but you only pull out the fact that pine cones can have a gender. Memory is often evaluated based on an individual’s ability to retrieve information.

 

 

Encoding and Retrieval

Because of the availability of internet search engines where seemingly infinite amounts of information is stored, many things that we once deemed necessary to be encoded- like the fact about pine cones above- no longer are because the information is now accessible from an outside source. We save our cognitive resources by not focusing on encoding this information, especially if we first encounter the information online (Dong & Potenza, 2015). Internet searches mimic how we search our own mental representations, however they tend to be faster and less controlled. Internet searches can, using psychological terminology, be described as automatic processes. That is, they can occur without much conscious thought, occur quickly, and are virtually effortless. Because of this, information found through an internet search typically is not stored in long-term memory (Dong & Potenza, 2015). Searches for information conducted using a medium other than the internet, such as reading a book, require greater effort and a greater amount of cognitive resources, but the information is more likely to be attended to and encoded in such a way that retrieval will be easier in the long term.

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Another interesting aspect of the google effect is its similarities to the way groupthink- the practice of thinking and making decisions as a group- and transactive memory- the way in which groups encode, store, and retrieve information- work in everyday life (Sparrow, Liu & Wegner, 2011). If you would like to read the original paper, click here. In a way, the internet is a giant shared memory between all people with access to it. In theory, everyone has the ability to search for and find the same information and then all share a really similar memory (Austin, 2003). Also, if someone assumes they could just ask someone for the information later, they are less likely to encode and store the information themselves; this can be described as an old-fashioned version of the google effect.

Instead of an individual’s first instinct being to think and search their memory for information, it is now to look it up online. The more exposure someone has to technology, the more pronounced this effect is and the more likely it is to interfere with daily life. For example, a student taking a dendrology (yes, I did have to look that up again; this is a real-time example of the google effect) course and learning about pine cones would find it more difficult to remember the details from the article they skimmed on their phone about pine trees a few weeks ago. The context in which they read the article led for their mind to subconsciously deem the information as “not too important” and consider it easily accessible through means other than encoding, storage, and retrieval. This then led to the information not being encoded then, and because the student is now taking a course that requires the information, they will have to actively engage in the encoding process which requires a lot of cognitive resources.

 

Prevention and Conclusion
So, the next time you have the thoughts “I’ll just google it” or “I’ll look it up again later if I need to”, try to remember reading this blog- though you may find it more difficult to as a result of the google effect. You may have already experienced the google effect in the past, but you can reduce the possibility of experiencing it again in the future by focusing on what you read and listen to, being consciously aware of your surroundings, and actively rehearsing and repeating information rather than assuming you will be able to access it through an internet search when you need it later. If you would like to read more about the google effect, please click here.

References:

Austin, J.R. (October 2003). Transactive memory in organizational groups: The effects of content, consensus, specialization, and accuracy on group performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(5): 866-878. DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.88.5.866

Dong, G., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Behavioural and Brain Responses related to Internet search and memory. European Journal of Neuroscience, 42(8), 2546-2554. doi:10.1111/ejn.13039

Huebner, B. (2013). Socially Embedded Cognition. Cognitive Systems Research, 25-26, 13-18. doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2013.03.006

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776-778. doi:10.1126/science.1207745

  1. April 18th, 2017 at 15:01 | #1

    Very interesting post. I also feel that these deficits in memory are related to Schmidt and Bjork’s (1992) findings on learning. In their research, we see that many so-called “difficulties” in learning are actually desirable and beneficial to the process. The greater the effort that we must make to encode certain information correlates to better retention of the studied material. Because we now have much greater access to reliable search engines, like Google, the information we seek is much easier to acquire. We spend less time and effort encoding material when it’s simply “Googled.” If, instead, we had taken the time to go to a physical library, locate an encyclopedia, and peruse through an entry for the desired information (just like the good ol’ days), we would likely have stronger memory traces due to the extra effort involved in the search process.

  2. bjfanu20
    April 20th, 2017 at 16:33 | #2

    Fascinating look at google, transcience (forgetting over time), and absentmindedness (due to failure to encode due to lack of attention). What about the authority bias? Isn’t google viewed with a kind of rosy glasses? I just can’t help but remembering all those infantile comments about how much people love* google and its like, come on, google gives you a bunch of stuff and you make sense out of it all. People talk about google as though it is a saint.

    Maybe part of google’s addictiveness is the ability for people to feel vindicated, like their 5 minute research foray on google gave them some insight into complex matters.

    What techniques can we employ besides using google less to get back our internal storage? Maybe by learning skills like chunking and developing habits like spaced repetition of material and practice quizzing, we can get those important facts into semantic memory.

    This may also connect to Triesman’s idea of a threshold. Since all this information is available on google, it probably never had to grow very close to the threshold since you would seldom rely on yourself to “come up” with the facts that you’re looking for.

  3. April 21st, 2017 at 15:13 | #3

    This phenomenon is so cool! I was especially surprised to learn the effect can get worse with more exposure to technology. As a college student, I am always on my computer so learning that it may be affecting my memory is slightly alarming. This post made me think of what we have learned about spacing and the encoding specificity principle. Spacing study sessions out allows for repeated retrieval of the information and makes it easier to retrieve it in the future. With general knowledge, accessing it without going to a computer would force the brain to search and find the information, strengthening its accessibility. In regards to the encoding specificity principle, the more we differentiate the cues and contexts in which the information is retrieved the less we need to rely on a specific time and place in order to remember (Tulving & Thomson, 1973). Going to Google each time does not diversify the context or cues, in fact, it diminishes them. Now you’re reliant on only one context.
    It seems that the google effect is a negative thing, but I wonder if there are advantages as well? Not having to allocate resources to information that we can just google may streamline our memory. For obvious reasons, this strategy does have its downfalls, but maybe we are just becoming more efficient?

  4. abgrossm
    April 30th, 2017 at 13:54 | #4

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post because I can definitely relate to the google effect. An example of the google effect in my life that I thought of right away is from my chemistry class. All of my chem homework this year has been online, and a good amount of the sections have required me to know the conversion from joules to kilojoules. Everytime I do the homework I forget what the conversion factor between the two is (even though I know that it is a very straight forward conversation factor), and I google it to make sure that I have it right. You would think I would have been able to commit this conversion factor to memory after the first homework or two, yet two months into the semester I still found myself googling the conversion factor.
    You mentioned how attention is necessary for encoding to occur, which reminded me of the research we discussed in class on distracted driving. Strayer, Watson and Drews (2011) found that when participants were talking on the phone while driving, they did not remember seeing some objects and people that they visually fixated on. This occurs because your attentional resources are being used up talking on the phone, so you are unable to allocate the sufficient attention that is needed to encode into memory all the objects you are fixating on. With the example of the conversion factor that I keep forgetting for my chem homework, I probably didn’t remember it for so long because every time I looked it up I would write it down without paying much attention to the actual numbers I was writing down. Then I would use the conversion factor for the problem I was doing and right away put it out of my mind.
    In class we discussed the seven sins of memory. We talked about how forgetting as a result of not paying enough attention at encoding is the sin called absent-mindedness. It appears that the internet is increasing the frequency of this sin. Although the seven sins of memory are thought to reflect evolved benefits to our memory systems, I wonder if the google effect is beneficial for us because it frees up cognitive space/resources, or if there are drawbacks of relying on technology to be our memory source.

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