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.

One more related, and revealing, statistic:

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.”ceramic frogs doing Google search

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. 






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  1. I think of myself as a Victor when it comes to the Google Effect. I definitely subscribe to the theory that if I can find it out quickly by Googling it why add it to the long list of things I need to remember. One other thing about online searches, one still must determine what is correct – just because you read it online does not mean it is necessarily true or correct. Sometimes experiences in real life teach you things that you could not possibly know for fact otherwise. 😉

    There are way too many things I am required to remember that I can’t find on the internet such as passwords, ugh, SO many passwords to all my online accounts, my bank card, my credit card. These things I can not look up online. I remember my childhood and life events prior to today (yes, I know these memories change as you mentioned) but these, again, are things I cannot simply search for online.

    When it comes to experiencing life through your phone rather than putting the phone away and remembering it I am torn. As a YouTuber, my job is to document these things and upload them to my channel so there is a reason to be watching through a lens be it a phone or a camcorder. Of course for personal times that I will not be adding to my channel, I focus on the experience itself. I may take the odd picture but for the most part, I try to be present for the experience. In a way, this makes the event even more special because I get to put the phone/camera down.

    There are also lots of things I learn through books and although I could probably look up the same information online I choose to read books for the sheer relaxation value. So I would say I have a good blend of memory sources and Google is just one of them – it is not an all or nothing sort of thing where Google is my only source of information and memory. I choose to learn and remember things and Google becomes just another tool I use to do that.

    This was an interesting post, Karen, thanks for sharing it. It made me stop and think about how much I use search engines (or Siri) to find out information and how much of what I see online I remember. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Susan. Your comment about needing to determine the accuracy of what you read online reminds me of another benefit of Google. When people complain that the Internet is making them dumber, they forget that it takes intelligence to come up with the right question to ask to get an appropriate answer from among the thousands of possible responses.
      Good point about an event feeling more notable because you have chosen to put down the camera.

      1. You’re welcome. 😀 You are so right about it taking intelligence to know how to phrase the question to get the information you are looking for. Oh, and I forgot to tell you that those ceramic frogs up there in the picture are adorable! Great choice for a photo to accompany this post. Of course, I had to pin it to my Profound Journey board. 😉

  2. Since I don’t have a Smart phone or any phone, I don’t use Google as much as others do, although I find it an easy way of finding an answer to a question. When I ask my husband something, he can just look it up, instead of always saying “I don’t know” which is not very pleasing. 🙂 That is, if he carries his phone around.

    Since I do not trust my memory (I think the internet has made people more self-aware and less self-confident!), I fact-check and double-check memories about certain places I visited or photos I took and did not caption, just to make sure.

    Speaking of photos, I have a Google effect with that and this has been going on since I have been taking photos, for decades! I snap pictures to store/capture memories. I admit that taking in the scenes, smells and sounds would provide me of a better and more in-depth experience of the moment.

    Great topic!

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I hadn’t thought about the Internet making us more self-aware and less self-confident, but that’s so true, at least for me! I doublecheck so many things that I actually do know.
      I think taking pictures has so many benefits, especially for your blogging and perhaps for your memoir. It’s challenging to find that happy medium, where you meet those needs and at the same time enjoy the experience of the moment.

    2. Hi Liesbet, I believe you are right about the internet making people more self-aware and less self-confident. I mean, to be truly self-confident would require you to know the information without having to look it up, wouldn’t it?

      As for the photos, I believe there is a place for those too. How else are you going to share with others what this place looked like, or capture what a certain person looked like. When I take photos or video I try to take the shot then lower the camera and soak up the sights, smells and sounds around me.

  3. I too don’t have a Smart phone – and I don’t miss it. My daughters and grandchildren use computers, and their phones, as though they are an extension of their fingers – me – not so much. In fact, my memory is terrible at the best of times and I often forget that you can look things up on Google so I simply call someone and ask. Most of the time I don’t remember where to go on Google to look things up and actually don’t use it much at all – with one exception – conversion of anything metric to imperial. Speaking of which, does anyone on here know why a bottle in the grocery store is by the litre but vegetables are sold by the pound? So, considering my total lack of computer literacy, I guess I can say that I don’t suffer from the Google effect.

    1. It sure does sound like you don’t suffer from the Google effect, Anna. As for your grocery store bottle/vegetable question… I am not sure why they do things that way. In the grocery store, at least the one we go to, the prices on the vegetables are listed by the pound and by the kilogram. The scales they have hanging there for you to weigh your purchase seem to always be measured in kilograms.

      In a way I envy you, Anna, it is tremendously confusing sometimes the way time and technology marches on and keeping up with it requires a lot of time, money and energy. If the way you are dealing with things is working for you I say keep doing that. 🙂

    2. I’m with Susan on this, Anna. What you are doing is working for you. And calling people to ask questions allows you to maintain those all important connections. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind!

  4. I totally use my memory as much as I can. I am still of the belief “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. As in many circumstances, activities, memory, etc. I still believe this is true, so I try to take my time and remember things such as everyone’s phone number without looking at the contact lists. So far I have been able to remember appointments, etc. I seldom use my google, only to pull up my pc points card and update it each week and yes I remember my passcode. I have always enjoyed using my memory.

    1. Good for you, Gerri! I must admit I usually ask Siri to call “so and so”, it just dials the number and I talk to whomever I wanted to call. I use my smart phone to remind me about appointments too. You make a good point for the “If you don’t use it you lose it” theory, and if that is true I may be in the process of losing it. 🙁

      1. I guess it comes down to habit. I know you have Siri, Gerri, and so do I and yet it doesn’t occur to us to use it. Whereas Susan, you use it all of the time. It would be interesting to know why some are quick to embrace features like Siri while others are not. If someone hasn’t received a large social sciences grant to research this, I imagine it’s just around the corner.

    2. Hi Gerri,
      I can’t believe you memorize people’s phone numbers! I definitely use my contact list, can’t remember my logins or passwords, but I am not too bad on remembering appointments. I just use my google calendar to confirm them.
      I think I should take a page from your book and try to remember some of these things.

  5. Hi Karen,
    This is a very interesting blog article. Here are some self-observations for me:
    -I have a smart phone I bought in England, used in Tashkent and now have brought to Canada. After a month being back home, neither my husband or I have re-activated it. We simply do not see it as necessary. My land line and my answering machine still work. The only time we really used the phone was to call each other to see where the other was in a grocery store!
    -I am terrible at remembering passwords and logins. I drive my son crazy when I ask him to fix something technology-wise to the point where he keeps a file of my passwords. I rely heavily on the “forgot your password” option when he is not around.
    -I tend to use strategies for knowing how to find the information rather than simply remembering the information. I tell myself I am keeping my mind clear for more pressing things. Now that I say this, I feel I am being lazy.
    -Isn’t there some sort of statistic out there that talks about how knowledge has grown over the years? (I could google it, I know.) Not only that, but then that knowledge changes. I really do not mind using the internet to find information.
    -I am interested in knowing how the internet has changed the way students in high school, for instance, find and process information. Even though they are encouraged to use multiple sources to corroborate their “facts”, I don’t think they delve into research as deeply as one would if reading books, journals etc. I think they are learning at the surface rather than looking for depth of understandings.

    Some thoughts as I reflected upon your blog….

    1. Hi Fran,
      Thanks for your observations and reflections.
      – I hear you about the smart phone. I have an iphone 4 (googled that and the iphone 4 is still in use by precisely 1% of the world’s population. I’m way behind the times.) I put $100 on it a year. Last year I used $40 which, at a $ a minute, means I talked 40 minutes on my cell phone in an entire year. The only reason I keep the cell is as a safety when driving; a ‘just in case I get in an accident’ phone. I wish I didn’t bother with it at all.
      – I have so many passwords and logins that I have a 9 page Word document of them. It’s ridiculous!!
      – Yup, lots of statistics about the knowledge explosion. In fact I have a book I bought years ago and haven’t read yet, called “Too Big to Know.” It’s on my list to read and then write a blog post about. I should move it up the list; it would be a good companion piece to this Google Effect post.
      -When I wrote “Tuned Out” about engaging 21st century students, I read a lot of research about how students are researching now. And you’re right. Good research skills have to be explicitly taught, or they very much tend to skim the surface because that’s the pattern of activity they are used to in all aspects of their online worlds.

  6. hmmm – good question.

    Google is a great tool. I don’t know how I managed without it BI (Before Internet). I use it to research stuff I’m writing about because I’d hate to be caught in a “false fact” … but if I compare my use to my adult sons or my husband, no, I’m not pathologically attached to it. I rarely go searching for random info and I’m one of those dinosaurs that still uses a phone for calling people 😉

    1. Me too on the phone thing, Joanne. My young relatives don’t understand why I want to talk with them by phone rather than text, but I’m happy to insist on my dinosaur status for the sake of what I see as real communication.
      Thanks for commenting, Joanne.

  7. Well, one thing that the research tells us is that the more often we call a memory to mind, the easier it is to retrieve next time. As well, a memory that is richly contextualized (many associations) also is easier to recall. I wonder if one reason that facts found through Google searches often don’t stick is that the information being looked up serves a single temporary purpose (much like looking up something in an encyclopedia as we used to do), so it isn’t strongly coded into the web of associations that is our memory system. Of course, most people nowadays do online searches much more frequently than they ever used an encyclopedia!


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