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The internet isn’t making us stupid. It’s making us humble.

"People might be engaging in a sort of social comparison between themselves and the internet."
"People might be engaging in a sort of social comparison between themselves and the internet."
everything possible / shutterstock
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

You are sitting across from a friend who asks if you know the capital of Canada. How does your willingness to answer this question change if you have access to the Internet (e.g., via the smartphone in your pocket) or not (e.g., you are hiking in the wilderness with no Internet access)?

That's the question psychologists at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo pondered in a paper published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

In a series of experiments, they asked participants trivia questions ranging in difficulty from, "What is the name of a dried grape?" to, "Who was the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire?" Before participants got the chance to respond, they were asked simply, "Do you know the answer to this question?"

When participants had access to the internet, they were less likely to say, "I know the answer." The mere presence of a search engine made them less confident in their own brains.

It's a good illustration of just how fundamentally the internet has changed how we interact with our own minds.

Is the internet really making us dumber?

Knowledge has always been distributed across members of our communities. No one individual can know everything, and we often "offload" some knowledge onto others. It's okay that I don't know how to fix a leaky faucet, because I can call Mark.

The internet, psychologists theorize, is the equivalent of a giant, all-knowing Mark. It doesn't just know how to fix leaky faucets. It knows everything. With our smartphones by our sides at all times, we can offload our responsibility to understand the world to the internet. And the more we offload our intelligence to the internet, the less of it we need to store in our brains. Psychologists have seen this in the lab. People are less willing to remember information when they believe it's saved in a computer.

And as this newest study by Canadian psychologists suggests, we seem to become less sure of our own brains when internet access is nearby.

One possibility is that the internet actually makes us more humble. "We suggested that people might be engaging in a sort of social comparison between themselves and the internet," Amanda Ferguson, one of the study's authors, writes me in an email. "This would reduce their 'feeling-of-knowing' the answer (since they're comparing themselves to the all-knowing internet), and ultimately lead them to answer fewer questions."

Alternatively, the internet raises the stakes for us to be correct. When a friend asks if you know the capital of Canada, you'd feel more responsible for the accuracy of the information if you had a smartphone in your hands. It ups the costs of being wrong. So it's better not to answer.

Whether this is good or bad depends on context. But here's an optimistic takeaway: It's not so bad for us to be reminded there's an impossibly large amount of information in the world, to take a step back and be humbled and in awe of it.

In the study, when participants with internet access did give answers based on their own knowledge, they were more likely to be correct. The internet highlights what we don't know, but makes us more accurate when we feel like we do.

And the internet isn't a flawless catalog of information, either: "Even when people were using the internet to search for answers in our study, their accuracy was only at around 83 percent," Ferguson says. "So our external knowledge store — i.e., the internet — seems to have a few flaws of its own. "

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