Home > Education, Memory > You’ll still probably have to Google what the Google effect is later on, even if you read this now

You’ll still probably have to Google what the Google effect is later on, even if you read this now


Imagine you encounter a time traveler who recently arrived in the present day from a couple hundred years ago. What would he or she be most impressed by in this day and age? Would it be the skyscrapers and developed roadways? The drastic decrease in the amount of untouched nature? The amount of leisure time and luxuries people have today compared to back then? No; perhaps the most amazing breakthrough that distinguishes today from a few centuries ago, though it is seemingly taken for granted by most who use it, is the phenomenon of us having almost all the information we could possibly need contained in a small box in our pockets. The ability to search the plethora of knowledge that is the internet at any time and any place allows us to access any information we want within seconds. Gone are the archaic days in which we needed to flip through countless books looking for a single quote or memorize facts that may or may not be useful in the future. So, why would we bother taking up space in our memory with such knowledge when we could simply remember where to find it?

Believe it or not, our brains have already figured this shortcut out for themselves. The Google effect, a term first coined in a paper by Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner (2011), is the tendency for someone to remember where to find certain information better than the material itself. The paper (which can be found here) discussed several experiments that were carried out, the results of which all converged onto this central concept of people becoming increasingly reliant on web searches for knowledge. One trial suggested that when people believe they’ll have access to information later on, they will not remember it as well as information they think will not be available to search. Another experiment had participants type short trivia facts into a computer, and were told afterward that each entry was either saved or deleted. When quizzed about the trivia facts later on, the participants could more accurately remember the facts they were told had been erased than those they were told had been saved on the computer; however, they could better recognize whether a certain trivia fact had been saved than if it had been deleted. Additionally, they were able to correctly say more often than not exactly where the saved information had been kept. In short, people are better at remembering things they don’t believe they’ll be able to find later on, but have good memory of where to find things they know they have access to.


Why do might our brains do this?  Some interpret the Google effect as the brain’s way of adapting to the doors technology has opened for humans (Dong & Potneza 2015); it is your mind’s way of taking a shortcut and using less effort than it would if it tried to store everything it came across on the internet. As long as you are able to figure out where exactly to look for facts online, there is virtually no limit to what you can “know” at any given time. If you are aware that statistics for your favorite baseball team’s offensive performance will be right in your pocket while sitting at a game, you won’t need to worry yourself with memorizing the whole roster’s batting averages before getting to the game (unless you want to impress other fans by rattling off team trivia in the bleachers).

In a way, the Google effect is like using computers as external memory drives. This concept goes along with the idea of humans’ transactive memory systems: when people work in a group, they tend to divide up the information at hand between group members and are able to remember who has what knowledge. The entire group’s combined knowledge is more than any single person could hope to remember (Austin 2003). This is why, as much as college students may hate them, group projects are implemented in class and typically involve more work than individual projects (more information about transactive memory can be found here). The Google effect basically involves a transactive memory system on an extremely large scale, connecting the knowledge of everyone on Earth. If you think about it this way, it might seem like it’s a good thing our brains have adapted to technology.

That may not be the case. A study done by Dong and Potneza (2015) suggests that, in terms of overall learning, searching for information in encyclopedias gives people a better memory of that information than searching for it using a web browser.


Although participants using the internet were able to find and recite information more quickly than participants using encyclopedias, the encyclopedia group had better scores when tested on the material later on. So, even though both groups used sources other than their own memories, there was a significant difference in their retained knowledge. This could be explained by deep processing versus shallow processing of information: the more attention that is paid to the meaning of given information, the better it will be remembered. Since looking something up in an encyclopedia takes more time and effort (deep processing) than looking something up online (shallow processing), it is more likely to be remembered. Even if using an encyclopedia is better for our memory, we won’t be making the switch back to books any time soon; this same study also included brain scans of the participants using computers, and showed that looking up information online triggered neural activity in some of the same regions as when people take drugs. We have conditioned ourselves to use computers to find information we don’t know, and are mentally rewarded when we open a web browser.

Another curious way the Google effect has affected the daily lives of college students is in the makeup of research papers. A study done at MIT showed that the number of citations used in doctoral theses has steadily increased over time, despite the expectations and requirements for the projects have stayed about the same (Varshney 2012). This suggests that doctoral students nowadays have less general information that they just know offhand about their topic than students in previous decades. Instead, they know where they would need to search in order to find that information, and are thus obligated to cite these sources in their final projects. While this may not be inherently good or bad, the Google effect might help you get to that minimum page count for your next essay.

The Google effect may only become more common as people get more and more attached to their phones and look for that instant gratification of being able to know something within seconds without much effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing, aside from the fact that the trivia games you play with your family might get more boring. However, some might be bothered by the fact that unlimited access to any information they want is altering the way they think and remember material. So, the next time you’re studying for a test, you may want to use a textbook instead of the slides your teacher posted online. Better yet, try to recall the material by yourself without the help of an external source, since you won’t be able to cite a Wikipedia page on an exam.


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. (October 2015). Behavioural and brain responses related to Internet search and memory. European Journal of Neuroscience, 42(8): 2546–2554. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13039

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D.M. (5 August 2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043): 776-778. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745

Varshney, L.R. (September 2012). The Google effect in doctoral theses. Scientometrics, 92(3): 785-793. DOI: 10.1007/s11192-012-0654-4

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  1. amswid20
    May 11th, 2017 at 23:09 | #1

    The implications of the Google Effect on our ability to form neural pathways to remember information is really fascinating to me. I wonder how much of an effect this has on our ability to remember things that aren’t semantic in nature- such as episodic memories, procedural memories, or prospective memories. Even though these are not things that we believe we could “look up” later, they may still be affected, especially if the Google Effect is more similar to an automatic process than controlled.
    I’m also curious to see how much exposure to technology is necessary before people start to display significant deficits, and also if, and how long it would take, to reverse the effect.

  2. May 3rd, 2017 at 20:44 | #2

    I really liked the topic of your blog post! As you pointed out, our society has become so used to the technology we have at our hands that we don’t even recognize the effects they have on our cognitive processing of information. While reading, I wondered how the Google effect related to attention and the amount of resources allocated for certain information. It would make sense that purely remembering the source of your information would require the use of a lot less attentional resources than remembering the information itself. This being said, I also wonder how source misattribution (incorrect recollection of the source where you got the information) may play into the Google effect. If remembering the source of the information does not require a lot of attention, and is thus easily encoded, would this mean that source misattribution is less likely to occur?

    In addition, as a Biology-neuroscience major I was also really interested in the similarities between neural activation resulting from the google effect and from taking drugs. This finding makes me wonder if older individuals, who did not grow up with this technology, also show the same neural activation.

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