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Google: An External Hard Drive for Our Memory

Have you ever tried to share a random tidbit of information you know that you should remember and just totally failed to recall it? Have you ever gotten in the car to drive across town and realized you’d have to consult the internet for the address? Or, have you ever zoned out in class because you know you can just check Wikipedia to catch up once you get the study guide for the next exam? You might have fallen victim to what psychologists have come to recognize as the Google Effect. We walk around with our smartphones in hand and laptops in our bags, knowing the internet is always available, so why should we bother remembering something we can just look up later? Due to the constant availability of the internet, in modern times, individuals are increasingly failing to encode information and instead, have encoded one simple fact: I can Google it later.

Is Google consuming your mind?

Searching for things on the internet has become commonplace, whenever we need an answer, we simply type a few key words into a search bar and in under seconds there are billions of results available to answer our question. We rely on this resource to such a great degree we often feel lost or experience withdrawal when we can’t instantly access the endless information held on the internet. Individuals are rarely entirely offline, unless by choice. Due to the increasing presence of technology in our everyday lives, the internet has become a sort of external hard drive that our brains are adapting to rely on. Believe it or not, as evidenced by the Google Effect, the internet is causing the cognitive process of retrieving information from memory to occur in a different manner.

This change in how we retrieve information from memory has led psychologists to investigate the processes through experimental testing. Perhaps the most well-known study investigated recall rates between information itself and where the information was stored. This study, which can be found Essentially, this research indicates that search engines, like Google, impair an individual’s memory for specific information (item memory). Meanwhile, results from this study express how search engines can increase our memory for the particular context of a memory item (source memory). These results help show the specific processes in our memory that are affected by the constant presence of search engines, like Google (Sparrow, Liu, Wegner, 2011).

Google is metaphorically referred to as an external hard drive for our memories.

We know that humans have limited cognitive resources and in order to remember necessary information the mind must reach beyond its own capacity. Therefore, we know that the method of storing information externally is not necessarily new.

Retrieving something from stored memory is like fishing it out of your brain.

The Google Effect is supported by what is known as transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to the collective action of encoding, storing, and retrieving knowledge from memory. Encoding, storing and retrieving refer to the processes of memory. Encoding refers to the creation of a memory trace. Storage refers to the maintenance of that memory trace. And retrieval refers to the accessing of that stored memory trace. When individuals work together, they tend to divide up information so that not every individual is goingthrough the processes of encoding, storing and retrieving each particular piece of information (Wegner, 1986). From here, individuals tend to remember who knows what information, rather than the information itself (Argote, Ren, 2012).

Now, let’s think about where transactive memory might manifest. Well, there is definitely something to be said about pre-Google transactive memory. Let’s think of a group project. Jen, Dani and Eliza are in a group and have to present a project. Ever heard of the divide and conquer strategy? Jen, Dani and Eliza take this approach. On presentation day, everyone is prepared and a wide variety of information is held among the three, however, Jen doesn’t know Dani or Eliza’s part, Dani doesn’t know Jen or Eliza’s part and so on…but, collectively all of the information is covered. This is an example of transactive memory! Eliza knows exactly what she needs to present and successfully covers that information. She knows Jen and Dani hold the rest of the information, so she’ll just reference them and their stored knowledge as a sort of external memory. Group projects are just one example of transactive memory, it’s present more than we realize. But, be careful! This isn’t the best approach to your group project if you’ll all have to learn the information for the exam in the end!

Society’s reliance on Google has even made it into the world of memes.

Transactive memory across people in very close relationships is also an interesting concept. Similar to how transactive memories work in group projects, individuals who spend a lot of time together can also develop a sort of transactive memory. Just like we rely on Google as a source for information, we rely on close individuals to remember specific information we may not remember ourselves (Wegner, Erber, Raymond, 1991).

Transactive memory, pre-Google, doesn’t necessarily refer just to the stored information across a group of individuals; it can also refer to any external source that holds information. Let’s take your grocery list for example. Who has actually gone to the grocery store without a list and successfully gotten everything they intended to? I would bet a very small number of people. The use of a grocery list is just another form of transactive memory. You know you’ve written down all the items you need on the list, so you just reference the list as an external source when you’re ready to recall the information.

This graphic shows how we might imagine transactive memory in relying on another individual to store information.

Cognitive processes indicate that the internet isn’t actually making us dumber or worsening our memory. Our minds are just relying more heavily on our transactive memory. Let’s think about this, in a world where everything is changing, where information is endless and technology continues to seep into our daily lives, couldn’t the Google Effect be a positive thing? This question is up for debate. If you know you’ll always have access to your smartphone, why bother remembering the address of your friend’s house across town? Our reliance on technology in our everyday life is undeniable, in that sense, the Google Effect might just be looked at as an adaptation to the technological world; our minds are using the resources available in order to be the most effective. What do you think? Click here if you think Google is functioning as an extended mind!


Argote, L., & Ren, Y. (2012). Transactive memory systems: A microfoundation of dynamic capabilities. Journal of Management Studies, 49(8), 1375-1382.

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., Erber, R., & Raymond, P. (1991). Transactive memory in close relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(6), 923.

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. December 16th, 2019 at 15:01 | #1

    I really enjoyed your blog post– your discussion on item versus source memory really reminded me of the DRM paradigm we discussed during class. In the DRM paradigm, participants are presented with a list of 15 words related to a theme (aka critical lure). For example, the “sleep” (critical lure) list includes words such as bed, dream, pillow, tired, etc…To decide whether a word was on the list or not, participants must simultaneously activate item-specific recollection and inhibit the familiarity based response. It’s interesting how search engines promote the opposite in that search engine impair item memory and increase source memory. I wonder if they performed the DRM paradigm today, would participants do worse on the task because of the technological age that we live in and the way people’s brains have adapted to rely more on context or source memory.

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