The Google Effect: Are you Victor or Victim?
The Google effect refers to our tendency to forget any information that can be easily found online. Another term for the Google effect is “digital amnesia.” For example, what’s the name of the actress who plays Shelby in the movie Steel Magnolias? If the answer doesn’t come immediately to mind, chances are very good that you’d “google it,” either directly through an Internet browser or indirectly through online personal assistants, Siri or Alexa. (The answer, so you don’t get distracted and leave to check, is Julia Roberts.)
The Research Says…
A 2011 study found that when faced with a difficult question, we will immediately think to conduct an online search. When we find the answer, we will remember it only if we don’t think it will be available to us online later. If asked to remember both something trivial and where online the information is stored, we remember only the location.
A 2013 study extended the Google effect to photographs. During a guided tour of an art museum, participants were told to photograph some objects and simply observe others. Researchers found that people had difficulty remembering objects they had photographed. They couldn’t remember details about the objects or even where they were located in the museum.
And finally, a 2015 survey of 1000 people speaks to our experiences. Findings included:
- Instead of remembering details, 91% of people looked up the information online.
- When asked a simple question, 36% turned to the Internet before attempting to remember the answer.
- 24% of people forgot an online fact just as soon as they used it.
- 60% of respondents could remember the phone number of the house they lived in when they were a child. However, 53% of people couldn’t phone their children or the office (51%) without looking up the number. Approximately one-third of respondents did not know their partner’s phone number.
- Digital amnesia is just as prevalent in older age groups as it is for young digital natives.
The average number of Google searches per day in 1998 was 9800. In 2016, the average number of Google searches per day was 9.02 trillion.
The Google Effect is Beneficial Argument
Why fill our limited brains with information that is so readily available at the end of our fingertips? It is smart to use the Internet as an extension of our personal memory, a kind of external hard drive.
When we don’t have to remember facts, we might be better able to use our mental resources to do something creative or innovative.
The Internet simply performs the memory service that used to be performed by other people. For example, as a new mom, we might have called the doctor’s office to find out when a baby typically hits various developmental milestones. Now we can just look up the information. As Jonah Lehrer says, the search engine is “like a particularly clever friend, a buddy with a gift for factoids and trivia.”
Our recall is flawed. As we discussed in the post about truth in memoir , memories are constructed and reconstructed. They change every time we remember them. Being able to rely on the Internet and on photographs improves the accuracy of recall.
In a research study reported in Scientific American, people were asked to answer trivia questions, with or without help from Google. Then they were asked to rate themselves according to how smart they are and how good they are at remembering things. Participants felt smarter and more capable when they used the Internet to find answers. These results held even when the Internet and non-Internet groups were able to answer the same number of questions.
The Google Effect is Detrimental Argument
Frequent Internet users show twice as much activity in the short-term memory region of their brain as do infrequent users during online tasks. Some researchers speculate that our brains are learning to ignore the information we find online. So, repeated use of Google will intensify the Google effect.
When our focus is on capturing life through our smartphones, we pay less attention to our lives and have a harder time remembering events. Having the photos can, of course, be a good memory trigger, but photographs don’t capture smells, sounds, or context. When attention is diverted from the experience, memory suffers.
Memories formed in our minds link to other memories. As we learn more and experience more over time, our memories continue to develop and change. Nicholas Carr argues that the uniqueness of our personal memories is the very definition of ‘self’, a self we are in danger of losing if we don’t attend to the significant differences between external and internal memory storage.
What do you think? When it comes to the Google effect, are you a victor or a victim? Please let us know in the comments below.