You over-inflate your intelligence when you use Google

The Internet Makes You Overinflate Your Intelligence

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We already know a little about the Kruger-Dunning Effect (phrased another way: if you’re an idiot, you probably think you’re a genius), and now here’s something else a bit damning about how the Internet messes with our self-perceptions of intelligence:

In a series of nine experiments on over 1000 participants, Yale researchers have found that searching the Internet creates an illusion of knowledge, in which we conflate information that can be found online with the actual knowledge in our heads. Participants were told to look up the answers to simple ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions commonly entered into Google, such as ‘How does a zipper work?’ The questions were simple enough for most people to have a sense of the answer, and they were asked to search the Internet to confirm the details. Participants who had looked up explanations in this way later rated themselves as significantly superior in their ability to give explanations to a set of completely different, unrelated questions, compared to the control group who had not used the Internet. Additionally, those who used the Internet to answer the original questions expected that they would have increased brain activity, corresponding to higher quality explanations, when answering the second set of unrelated questions.

Furthermore, it turned out that accessing the Internet alone did not justify the overconfidence in one’s own knowledge. Rather, the knowledge illusion was specifically driven by the act of searching the Internet, regardless of the type of search engine used, and regardless of whether the searching produced any relevant answers, or indeed any answers at all.  It seemed that the very act itself of searching for knowledge on the Internet fools the brain into thinking we have more answers than we really do.

This isn’t necessarily good.

The easiest way to conceptualize the potential negative effect would be something like this sequence:

  • You use the Internet a lot in a class/a given work situation.
  • Eventually, you have to sit and take an exam or give a presentation to your boss.
  • As that begins, you realize you know next to nothing and it was all pretty much the Internet — not your actual knowledge.

The more nuanced way to conceptualize the potential negative effect of the Internet and Google on your intellectual ability is to think of the idea of “the algorithm bubble.” Almost everything presented to you via Google and Facebook is the result of an algorithm based on your previous history with content and what you click on, etc.

Think about it like this: when gay marriage was made legal a few Fridays ago, your NewsFeed on Facebook was potentially all positive and everyone changing their profile picture and screaming from the rooftops about how great it is. That’s totally logical if you have liberal friends, or roll with a younger cohort, or whatever. Now think about this: there are people in the world (possibly people down the street from where you live) who are on Facebook, and whose NewsFeeds that day were all hate-filled about how awful gay marriage is. OK? You’d never see those NewsFeeds because you’re not friends with them.

That’s an “algorithm bubble” at base; you kind of self-select/opt-in to what you see and receive information about these days.

As a result, if we’re generating intellectual superiority from our use of the Internet, that can be dangerous.

Third concept, also basic: the Internet isn’t vetted in every single corner.

Fourth concept, perhaps more complex: there are a lot of people (especially older generations) who will say the Internet killed argument/discourse/etc. because if there’s a factual point at play (like in a sports bar debate), you can easily look up the answer on a phone, in said bar, and bam… it’s done. There’s no more debate, essentially. Happens in lots of other fields too. Information is everywhere; it’s (cliche alert) “at our fingerprints.” So that shifts to a new problem — how do we access what’s actually relevant, instead of what everyone wants to feed us? I did some freelance work for a company called Delvv that’s trying to address that “information overload” problem, and that’s cool. (Hopefully I’ll do more.)

The bottom line is this: how we use the Internet is changing some of our ideas about how smart or intellectual we really are. That’s something we need to be thinking about, because it’s not all for the best.


Ted Bauer


  1. I have the small advantage here of having always considered myself dumb as a post, Stanford-Binet and all that notwithstanding; there will forever be things I don’t know, even in those few fields in which I might be expert. This is not to say that I’m immune to this syndrome, only that I have a tad more resistance than Joe and Susan Sixpack and their 2.3 kids.

    • I consider myself dumb as hell, man … and I am sure I am guilty of this too. That’s why it seemed an interesting topic to me.

  2. Great article Ted! I almost forgot this and realise I’m probably already up to my chest in the algorhythmbubbletrap. I wonder: knowing this and what you suggest it does to (perception of) our intelligence and therefore to our self- image/esteem and therefore to our ability to collaborate, will you write a part two blog about the consequences of your findings for work, HR, companyculture and talent driven results? 🙂

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