Home > Attention, Memory > Don’t worry, you can Google this blog after you’ve read it

Don’t worry, you can Google this blog after you’ve read it

Do you know the capital of Indonesia? Or who the 11th President of the United States was? Perhaps, instead, you could tell me what arachibutyrophobia is?

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Don’t know something? Well…

No? Well, that’s okay. I mean, what’s the point of knowing stuff like geography or US history when you have all that information at the tips of your fingers? Maybe you won’t place first in your school’s trivia contest or apply to be on Jeopardy, but who cares, you can just Google it!

A long, long time ago, searching for information wasn’t so easy. People had to look through encyclopedias, dictionaries, and maps (ugh, can you imagine?) to figure out information that these days, we can find within seconds. Thanks to the previous work of dozens of brilliant scientists, the world was forever changed with Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web. What is fascinating is that in just the short amount of time that the Internet has been available, the human mind has already begun to develop and work in synergy with this technology. One of the most prevalent ways in which we see this is the Google effect. That’s right, an important cognitive bias was actually named after the world’s most popular search engine – and for good reason!

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How do you do your calculus homework?

So, what actually is the Google effect? There is a lot to unpack here, but mainly the Google effect is the tendency for people to forget information that they know will be available to them later on. Just as interesting, while people typically have a decreased ability to recall the actual information, they are usually able to remember where the information was stored. So, after searching the Internet for practice problems that show you how to do your calculus homework, you probably won’t remember the actual steps of integration by parts, but you will likely remember that Yahoo answers had an example that was very helpful. The tough thing is, when you are sitting in your calculus exam two weeks later absolutely stumped by the integration by parts problem, you’ll probably be picturing the Yahoo answers page, unable to remember the actual steps that it explained!

Sure, this all sounds somewhat intimidating, but I promise I am not making it up in an attempt to get you off your phone. The Google effect has been seen in multiple psychological studies! In their paper, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” (2011) , Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner conducted 3 different studies to show the impact of the Google effect. Interestingly, the study was done with Harvard and Columbia undergraduate students (yes, even really smart kids

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Not sure of an answer…?

experience the Google effect)! In the first set of experiments, it was tested whether or not people thought of the Internet when given a series of trivia questions. Participants answered easy or difficult trivia questions before completing a color-naming task with computer and non-computer related words presented in different colors. When the words were related to things they were already thinking about, participants tended to respond slower. It was found that when participants were presented with computer-related words, they were slower to respond with the color, showing that they were already thinking of the computer to find the answers to the questions. In the next set of experiments, participants were given a set of trivia statements and either told that the computer would save the statements or the computer would erase the statements. After, participants were challenged to write down as many statements as they could remember. The participants who had been told that the computer would erase the statements showed the best recall, as they put in the effort to memorize the trivia. In contrast, the participants who expected the statements to be stored on the computer had the worst percent recall. The third set of experiments was similar to the second, but tested peoples’ ability to recall where information was stored, as well as the information itself. When participants were told that the information would be saved on the computer, they were also told that it would be stored in one of six folders, each with a different label. Again, it was seen that the participants who were told the information would be erased had the best recall, but even more interesting was the incredibly accurate recall for where the information was stored on the computer. Basically, people had a better memory for where information was stored rather than the information itself! These findings prove to be very convincing and do a fantastic job showing how the mind has evolved since the introduction of the Internet to our daily lives.

So, we know what the Google effect is and that its effects are prevalent in today’s society, but why does this occur? We can look at different cognitive factors involved to answer this question. An incredibly important one is transactive memory. Transactive memory is a combination of memory stores held by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information (Sparrow et al., 2011). Transactive memory is often seen in close relationships, such as with a best friend or romantic partner. Say, as a kid, you sat in the backseat of the family car and watched your parents interact up front. Your dad was driving, as your mother is useless when it comes to directions. On your way to your mother’s holiday work party, she reminds your father of all the names of the people who were going to be there, since he is horrible with names. This is an example of transactive memory – your mom relies on your

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Thank God Mom is there to help!

dad for information having to do with directions, while your dad relies on your mom to remind him of peoples’ names. This way, neither of them have to take up space in their memory for the things they know their spouse will remember. While most prevalent in closer relationships, transactive memory can also be helpful in a group setting, such as a group project for your Introduction to Statistics course or a group experiment in Chemistry lab. As times have changed and technology has become such an important part of our lives, people have started to use the Internet (and Google) as an external memory store and therefore are incorporating it into their transactive memory. Just like your mom can always rely on your dad for directions, you can always rely on Google to know the answer to information you don’t need to always have readily available. Having this external source that is accessible at any time greatly reduces your memory load – isn’t that convenient?

While the Internet is extremely useful in reducing the amount of information you are required to remember, there are a few adverse effects to relying on Google for all of your knowledge and learning. In a study done by Dong and Potenza (2015), the difference between Internet-based searching and book-based searching was explored. While using the Internet to search facilitated retrieval of the information, there was a much lower percent recall than for those who used an encyclopedia to search for the information.

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Perhaps this might be a good solution…

This can be explained by deep versus shallow processing of information. Ultimately, the amount of attention being paid to information determines how well it is processed. When the participants used the Internet to look up information, it was a quick process that didn’t require much attention (shallow processing), while when participants used the encyclopedia to look up information, it was a slower process that required more attention to the meaning (deep processing). It has been seen that with the increase of Internet usage in society, people have shifted to more shallow learning due to quick scanning on the computer, less time spent processing information, and consolidation of memory (a.k.a. the Google effect) (Loh&Kanai, 2015). The ease of online retrieval reduces the need to commit information to memory via deep processing. So, the Google effect results in less learning efforts, even if not intentionally.

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How to find the answers to all your problems…

Although there can be some negative outcomes of the Google effect, perhaps it isn’t all bad all the time. By allocating memory stores to the external source of the Internet, we free up cognitive resources for information that cannot be found on the computer, such as your significant other’s favorite type of candy or your mother’s birthday. As long as you are careful to study information for exams offline, you should be just fine. Maybe you don’t know off the top of your head that Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, or that James K. Polk was the 11th president of the United States, or even that arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter…but that’s okay! As the development of technology continues to flourish, it is hard to imagine a time where the Internet will not be readily accessible in the near future. So, go ahead and use Google to find information. I mean, it is pretty nice having an infinite amount of information just one “Hey Siri…” away.


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

Liang, D., Moreland, R., & Argote, L. (1 April 1995). Group Versus Individual Training and Group Performance: The Mediating Role of Transactive Memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(4): 384-393. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167295214009

Loh, K. & Kanai, R. (2016). How has the Internet reshaped human cognition? The Neuroscientist, 22(5): 506-520. doi: 10.1177/1073858415595005

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

Photo Citations:

Twilight GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/twilight-google-edward-cullen-RJErpbNqZQ652

I use Google GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/internet-college-google-y47oj4ptjPm5W

American Pie GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/internet-american-pie-1pZdLQVUPEti

The Office GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/CXExnbUUHPOzC

SNL GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/snl-saturday-night-live-season-42-3oriOisXNOzXjCDK12

Cat GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/cat-hacker-webs-o0vwzuFwCGAFO

  1. December 10th, 2019 at 16:49 | #1

    Hello Dani! I found this blog to be very informative and interesting. As I was reading, I thought back to all of the times I have had conversations with my friends where we have needed to look up information on our phones and how easy it was to find the information that was necessary to complete or enrich our conversations. When you talked about looking for math homework answers, I thought about the filter model of attention in which we direct our attention to information that is important and filter out irrelevant information. Not that the steps of a math problem aren’t important, but if a student is just looking for the answer, the irrelevant information in that case are the steps to get there. So, maybe it’s not just that the student can’t remember the steps, but also that they did not attend to them in the first place which means that they could not possibly be stored in long term memory. I liked how you discussed attention at the end of your blog because I was interested to see how you would discuss it in this context. Most of all, I thought your point about transactive memory was particularly fascinating because I had not heard of that kind of memory before and it helped to explain why we rely on Google so much. Really good job!

  2. aeburn20
    December 12th, 2019 at 20:45 | #2

    Hi Dani! I really enjoyed your blog post and found it very relevant, especially for students in today’s day and age. Your post got me thinking about the ways in which technology is incorporated into the classroom. You discussed a study in which participants are better able to recall information when they were told it would not be saved to the computer, compared to when they were told that they could save the information and access it later. This made me think of note-taking in class. When I know that the notes from class will be available after class, there is less pressure to comprehend and make note of everything that is on the board. While it is definitely helpful to be able to go back and reference the notes at a later date for studying, I’m sure that I do not retain as much information during the actual class period when I know I will be able to look at the notes later. Also, this got me thinking about the difference between typing notes and handwriting your notes. Since attention is such a limited resource, it is important to dedicate your full attention to the material during class in order to encode it and store it in memory. Computers contain so much opportunity for distraction, and therefore can limit the attention you are able to dedicate to the lecture. In addition, when we handwrite notes, we are forced to interpret and encode information as we go since we cannot write fast enough to copy what is being said word for word. This early encoding also helps to store the information in memory, and will ultimately lead to more success in the class.

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