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Do you trust Google more than yourself?

Are you using Google to answer all your questions?

Have you ever been asked a question that you do not know the answer to and you responded, “I don’t. I’ll just Google it”? If you said yes, like the overwhelming majority of people with internet access, your brain has already adjusted to work in synergy with technology. When you rely on the internet for information, it can negatively affect your memory, especially in exams or interviews, where technology isn’t available. An example of such negative influence can be seen in my own personal experience. I was preparing for an internship interview and I wrote on my application that I had background knowledge in the stock market. I panicked as I headed into the interview and tried to look up the company’s current stock and how their business was doing. In the interview itself, I word vomited and spewed out miscellaneous facts and numbers. After my display of panic, the interviewer asked me, “So…what does that mean for our company?” This demonstrates the reliance on Google (or the internet in general!), to gather information, but the inability to process, comprehend and retain the information. This lack of understanding and remembering is called the Google effect. In other words, we look up the information and find it on the internet, but when we try to recall the information, we can only remember the website or where it was located, but cannot remember the content or its significance.

The Google effect is a cognitive bias, or an error in the way we think when trying to process information (McBride & Cutting, 2016). Cognitive biases are common and influence your everyday life, just take these for example: Bandwagon effectabsent-mindedness, and the next in line effect. Specifically, the Google effect is when you look up information on the internet, find what you’re looking for, but later on you cannot remember the content itself, you just remember the pathway to reach the information.

This is me at the Google Headquarters in New York. I find myself under the Google effect a lot.

So, how does the Google effect occur? The Google effect occurs because of our transactive memory. Transactive memory is defined as your memory distributed across different external individuals or sources that you can access again, as opposed to keeping it all in your own memory. These individuals or sources could be a partner or family members, while the sources could be sticky notes or your iPad. The transactive memory works as a system because memory is not just in your head but spread across multiple people and locations. In a 2011 study, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner’s results explain how people who rely on transactive memory have higher recall of the source compared to the content.

Now that you know how the Google effect occurs, we need to figure out why the Google effect happens in the first place! The Google effect occurs because our memory is not just stored in our heads. We rely on journals, posts on social media, and even sticky notes with our grocery lists to keep track of memories. For that reason, one might think this is a new phenomenon because of technology very recent development, but in reality, we have relied on the transactive memory of external resources to help organize and recall information for ages.

Another example of the transactive memory combining to provide information is the tale told by your Grandparents of how they first met. The two of them have the story down perfectly because they have explained it so many times. Most importantly, your Grandparents rely on one another to help explain certain parts of the story; Grandma talks about how Grandpa picked her up in the old fashioned truck and Grandpa discusses the dinner. The conversation continues like this, where the two of them bounce off each other’s memory of their first date. This is an example of transactive memory because Grandma and Grandpa rely on each other as external resources to tell the whole story. This is an example of the pre-Google transactive memory because Grandma and Grandpa rely on each other as external resources to recall the story of when they first met. Similarly, in the current in age of technology, we rely on the internet as the external resource for information.

In addition to transactive memory, your Grandparent’s collaboration to tell the story also can explain collective memory. Collective memories are the memories that are shared between two or more people, which affects accuracy. The authors, Weldon and Bellinger (1997), discuss in the study, “Collective memory: Collaborative and individual processes in remembering,” how the collaborative groups recalled more than individuals, but it was noted that the best person in the group provided most of the answers. The collaborative memory between Grandma and Grandpa works because it is OK if Grandma really recalls the most information from the date. On the other hand, when considering your study habits, if you study with a group, you should be careful that you are not falling behind because the other students in the group understand the answers. If you’re interested in learning more about collective memory, here is an interesting article!

Now I’m sure you’re probably thinking that you’ve heard enough about grandparents, and want more information that relates to you. Well don’t worry, I know you Googled your way to finding this blog and probably catch yourself relying on the internet too much, so I have just the thing for you (If you’re like me, you’ve already ruined a few devices from jumping into pools and dropping them in the toilet!). To start, learning information from reading directly on paper, as opposed to online, can result in greater retention of information because you’re able to attend and focus on the information without the distracting aspects of technology (Dong & Potneza, 2015). Of course, it is fine to google search directions to the store, as there is no need to memorize that; this is not a bad thing. But, finding information online for your upcoming exam can hurt you, because you are not taking the time to learn the information. Learning takes effort, and distributed time dedicated to studying over a few days. When it comes to studying for your final exams…stop relying on Google to learn everything! If you do rely on the internet, you’ll only be able to remember what steps are necessary to find the website…not the actual content.

The defense is labeled “D,” the midfielders are labeled “M,” and the attackers are labeled “A.”

The Google effect challenges you when you are away from the internet because the effect will only connect the dots to the information, instead of the content. To break this down, think about the players on a lacrosse team. Let’s say one player enjoys shooting and plays attack, another teammate is tall and will focus on defense and the third player loves ground balls so she will take on the role of executing the draw in the midfield. Since the attacker and defender can handle their parts of the lacrosse field, the midfielder does not need to keep in mind how to shoot to score or defend all the attackers. All the midfielder needs to understand is how to win the draw controls, and the names of who she will ask to score or run defensive plays. Now, let’s consider the scenario where the midfielder wants to learn how to shoot better. In relation to the Google effect, our brain (the midfielder) contains the route to retrieve the information (knowing to go to an attacker to teach you to shoot), but prevents you from accessing the content directly (the detailed explanation about shooting). This relationship is newly developed with the increased use and reliability of technology today.

You can choose to not rely on technology every day when you wake up!

The Google effect is a cognitive bias that influences you immensely. No doubt, access to a bottomless bank of information is addicting, but you have an awesome, personal supercomputer right inside you skull too! So, tomorrow when you wake up to the buzzing smart watch on your wrist, click on the television to see the news, and pick up your phone to check the weather, take a break to think about if there’s is another way to start off your day – because you have your own brain, newspapers, magazines and other sources of the written word…you do not need Google to find all your answers!



Dong, G., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Behavioral and brain responses related to internet search and memory. European Journal of Neuroscience, 42, 2546-2554. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13039.

McBride, D.M., & Cutting, J. C. (2016). Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications Inc.

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

Weldon, M. S., & Bellinger, K. D. (1997). Collective memory: Collaborative and individual processes in remembering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 23, 1160–1175.

Photo Credits:

Brain Photo: https://searchengineland.com/googles-machine-learning-now-writes-featured-snippets-descriptions-264280

Lacrosse Photo: http://www.mnogolok.info/ewrahphoto-high-school-lacrosse-players.htm

Sleeping Photo: https://uswitch-mobiles1-contentful.imgix.net/qhi9fkhtpbo3/6vzxkxV1KwI620OkUueyCM/12de100b5dc264805be25f78f9cb8fe4/shutterstock_295098425.jpg?w=770&format=auto

  1. Monique Legault
    May 4th, 2018 at 12:30 | #1

    I find myself answering questions with “I’ll just Google it” far more often than I would like to admit. I found this article very interesting, and it describes the feeling of being unable to deeply understand information wonderfully.
    I am wondering about the connection between the Google Effect and the research done showing that simply having your smartphone on the table next to you can be detrimental to your attention and understanding. Could this be because your brain wants to take the easy way out? If you’re studying a difficult topic, but you know your phone holds all the answers and is sitting right next to you on the desk, what is stopping your brain from reaching for the phone and just knowing the answer? It’s difficult to draw a clear line between information you have to know for class and information you are just curious about, at least in your brain. This is an interesting intersection of the two ideas, and I’m beginning to think that maybe I shouldn’t even have my smartphone at school at all.

  2. May 10th, 2018 at 19:43 | #2

    This post brings up some very interesting questions, of which I had never really thought about before. Google has become a huge part of my life, and from it’s popularity is certainly an integral part of current society. This concept of our constant usage of google or other search engines resulting in a reliance on the technology is interesting, but concerning. This bias towards the Google Effect as a method for finding answers allows us to expand our knowledge, but also moves away from critical thinking and self-reliance. It’s interesting how the connection between us and googling has become second nature, perhaps it’s somewhat of an automatic process? Your post brings up many important points, especially about our increasing failure to process information. Overall you break down our reliance on google very logically and outline the reasons behind it, and potential consequences in a very accessible way.

  3. December 7th, 2019 at 17:32 | #3

    Although kind of reluctant to admit it, I find myself under the influence of Google effect quite often. If I am trying to understand a topic, the search results from Google often include all kinds of information, some can be summarizing the core concepts, some are specific details, some are comparison with other topics, etc. It is difficult to identify the exact source of all these information and pair them together. This blog has a really interesting discussion on transitive memory and collective memory. They both lead to think about how we retrieve information from our memory system and the cues in the environment we employ to find the mental content can be various. Google effect is related to how we tend to take information online for granted and are less likening to allocated enough cognitive resources to process and encode these information, which leads to transience and absentmindedness of memory. It is also possible that we assume finding the information needed is equal to remembering the information. The convenience of google also lead us to poor metacognitive evaluation of our memory that makes google effect more common.

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