Last week, the Washington Post carried a report of some new research that seemed to suggest that people’s use of Internet search engines, such as Google, is affecting the way their memories are organized. The study, carried out by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, was published in the journal Science [abstract] on July 14.
The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.
The four experiments that the authors carried out, using a group of Columbia undergraduates as subjects, are described in the Post article (there is an article on this research in the “Wired Science” blog at Wired as well), and were fairly ingenious. In essence, the researchers found that, when the subjects thought that new information would later be available online, they remembered the information less well; and they remembered where to find the information better than they did the content.
This may sound like something more novel than it actually is. As the study’s authors point out, strategies in which people rely on computer data for part of their memory are in many ways another type of transactive memory strategy. This is a phenomenon observed in, for example, couples, and in teams of co-workers, where the group develops a collective memory system based on the particular memories of individuals and on the members’ knowledge of each others’ memories. For example, one member of a couple may be (implicitly) assigned to remember birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. One member of a team at work might be the “go-to guy” for a particular class of technical questions. The result is a group memory system that potentially surpasses the capabilities of any individual. Readers, I’m sure, will be able to think of examples from their own experience. The Internet has made a large body of information much more easily available to the average person, allowing it to be “recruited” as a member of the group.
The authors also note that, as expected, individuals shift their memory strategies when they know that looking up information later is an option. This also is not so new; I have rarely seen a university professor in math, or physics, who did not have an office full of books. There are a fair number of books in my office as I sit writing this. What is perhaps new is the “democratization” of easily accessible knowledge, because of the existence of the Internet. Of course, there is a good deal of rubbish out there; but it is also true that many people today have access to sources of knowledge that, a few decades ago, would have been completely out of reach because of geography or economics.