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The Google effect is the tendency to forget information that can be easily found using internet search engines such as Google, instead of remembering it. The phenomenon was described and named by Betsy Sparrow (Columbia), Jenny Liu (Wisconsin) and Daniel M. Wegner (Harvard) in July 2011. Having easy access to the Internet, the study showed, makes people less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online. People can still remember, because they will remember what they cannot find online. They also remember how to find what they need on the Internet. Sparrow said this made the Internet a type of transactive memory. One result of this phenomenon is dependence on the Internet; if an online connection is lost, the researchers said, it is similar to losing a friend.
The study included four experiments conducted with students at Columbia and Harvard. In part one, subjects had to answer trivia questions, followed by naming the colors of words, some of which related to searching on the Internet. In part two, the subjects read statements related to the trivia questions and had to remember what they read. They had an easier time with those statements they believed they could find online. In phase three, the subjects had to remember the details of the statements based on whether they believed the information could be found somewhere, whether it could be found in a specific place, or whether it could not be found. They remembered the information they believed to be deleted most easily. In the final phase, the subjects believed the statements would be stored in folders. They had an easier time remembering the folder names than the statements. One conclusion: people can remember information if they do not know where to find it, and they can remember how to find what they need if they cannot remember the information.
Sparrow said, "We're not thoughtless empty-headed people who don't have memories anymore. But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that's kind of amazing."
Before the internet, books of information and libraries were readily available, and a similar effect could be hypothesized to have happen. In fact, in ancient Greek text The Phaedrus, Plato quotes Socrates asserting that memory becomes dependent on written text, when it is so available.
.."And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."
The internet magnifies this effect enormously because of its unprecedented availability of information, due to both faster searches and more access (particularly since the use of mobile devices such as smartphones).
- Betsy Sparrow, et al., "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips," Science 333:6043:776-778 doi:10.1126/science.1207745, July 15, 2011
- "Study Finds That Memory Works Differently in the Age of Google". Columbia University. 2011-07-14. Retrieved 2011-08-04.
- Krieger, Lisa M. (2011-07-16). "Google changing what we remember". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved 2011-08-04.
- "Plato, The Phaedrus".