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Let me google that for you

Everyone loves Google, right? All the information you could possibly ever want access to is right at your fingertips – quite literally – with search engines carried around in our pockets. Is Google making us smarter? It should, right? I mean it does provide us with an almost infinite amount of information. Well, here is where things get interesting. Recent studies have introduced a new concept known as The Google Effect, in which we are actually seeing some cognitive deficits caused by our dependency on Google and other search engines.

It is quite counterintuitive that these tools, which provide us with any information we want in just a matter of seconds, would actually hurt and not help our brain’s functioning ability. I know this is confusing, but let me put this into a real-life context that you might relate to a little more. 

Have you ever been in a conversation with a friend about something like sports or history where you and the other person were trying to remember a year when something happened? Or you couldn’t remember the artist’s name who plays a song you like to listen to? While you may have had this knowledge, it is very likely that you decided to find it somewhere other than in your brain’s memory store. Did you immediately resort to grabbing your smartphone or laptop so that you could simply typing your question into the search engine? Situations like these not only arise in conversations, but they also occur throughout daily tasks. For example, have you ever been baking a recipe and struggled to remember how many tablespoons were in a half cup? At first, you feel frustrated because you remember learning this in math way back in the day. Though you know that information is available (i.e., stored somewhere in your memory system), you consider trying to find it, but then you remember your reliable friend Google is right around the corner and ready to help you. While you might have been able to figure out that there are eight tablespoons in a ½ cup, you instead chose the option that required less mental energy because you don’t have time to locate that information in your memory.

Maybe you aren’t much of a cook and this example didn’t entirely resonate with you. If so, hopefully you have some experience navigating directions. As you know, GPS’s are becoming more and more common. Not only do people have them in their cars, but many also carry them in their pockets with the prevalence of smartphones. Have you ever had to drive somewhere completely new and had the option of getting directions from someone or relying on your GPS? You might have noticed that if you chose the latter, you had no idea how to get back to where you came from without the GPS. You might be able to blame the Google Effect for that. While search engines are a helpful resource and a great way to learn, they should be used with caution.


The origin of Google Effect is from research showing us that when people are aware that information is readily accessible somewhere else, they have lower rates of recall (Sparrow & Wegner, 2011). In this study, we saw that when people were asked difficult questions, they were primed to think about computers due to the association between computers and Internet search engines. While people had these lower rates of recall, they actually had greater rates for remembering where the information would be accessible. This would indicate that search engines impaired item memory, which is our memory of specific pieces of information. On the other hand, source memory (i.e., memory for the particular context of a memory item) was enhanced. With the age of technology, source memory is an important tool for navigating the large amount of information out there. It provides us with a method of navigation. Nonetheless, we cannot undermine the importance of item memory because without it, we would not have our own knowledge. For more information about the Google Effect’s application to neuroscience, visit here to learn about the Google Brain. 


Since the founding of the Google Effect, another study has displayed the application of this concept to Smartphones (Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, & Fugelsang, 2014). In this study, it was found that people essentially used Smartphones as an extended mind. Less analytical thinkers, those who did poorly on reasoning tests (such as a numeracy test and verbal intelligence test) were more likely to rely on their Smartphone regularly throughout the day. While it is not clear whether smartphone use caused the poorer analytical performance or vice versa, it is evident that there is a relationship between cognitive functioning and digital dependency.

While the Google Effect may seem like a recent phenomenon since Google has only been around the last couple decades, there is something known as “transactive memory” that has been around before Google. In transactive memory, we have two different stores for memory: one being the information that we know directly and the other being the information we know we can access from other sources, such as other people (Wegner, 1986). Traditionally, transactive memory was thought of as groupthink, where people go through the process of encoding, storage, and retrieval (i.e., first learn or “encode” information, then put it away and maintain it to “store” for later use, and eventually access or “retrieve” the information when it is necessary) with other people because more people can hold greater amounts of information than you alone. In this sense, we can think of search engines as being the other members of the group, providing significantly more information than you can hold as an individual. It is due to this idea of transactive memory that we see Google and other search engines essentially acting as a personal memory bank. Not only did Sparrow and Wegner’s experiments provide us with evidence for this Google Effect, it also showed us that information is remembered better when it is not easily accessed through the Internet. This proves that we rely on search engines as a crutch. While it should help enhance your knowledge, it should not completely take the place of it in your memory.

Altogether, Google is a helpful and incredible tool – don’t get me wrong. Just make sure that you are aware of your dependence on it. Maybe before immediately reaching to your electronic device, first see if you can find the information in your own memory system rather than the computer system. This will help you improve your memory in the long run – you will have better item memory, accessibility, and retrieval. If you haven’t had enough of the Google Effect and feel like you could read about it for the rest of your night, learn more at this blog post. Oh, and this one too.


Barr, N., & Pennycook, G., Stolz J. A., & Fugelsang J.A. (2015). The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 473-480. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.029

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 33(6043), 776-778. doi: 10.1126/science.1206773

Wegner, D. M. (1986). Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In B. Mullen & G.R. Goethals (Eds.), Theories of Group Behavior (pp. 185-208). New York: Springer-Verlag.

  1. May 11th, 2017 at 15:16 | #1

    I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about exactly what the Google Effect address: it seems we are becoming too dependent on our smartphones. Don’t get me wrong; I love my iPhone and the plethora of information it holds. However, I do think it is influencing how much I learn. Instead of searching our brains for the answer to a question, we mindlessly search for it on the internet. This probably prevents us from learning new things while interacting with the world. Putnam et al. (2016) says that retrieval practice is the best way to study and most effective way to learn information. Immediately looking up an answer on Google completely skips the opportunity to engage in any type of retrieval. I am curious how phone use has influenced test taking in schools. Has performance decreased? Having the ability to Google information can also be seen as an extension of automatic processing. You do not have to use any cognitive resources to come up with answer, because it is immediately on your phone. However, instead of creating memory traces and reinforcing them through practice, which is necessary for developing automaticity (Logan, 1960), we use nothing. There is no cognitive benefit in the long run. I agree with you. Smartphones and Google are great tools we just need to be careful of how dependent we are on them.

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