Access to the Internet influences our willingness to answer questions

Access to the Internet may have an impact on the confidence we express in our knowledge

news | December 29, 2015

In December 2015 Consciousness and Cognition published an article called “Answers at your fingertips: Access to the Internet influences willingness to answer questions“. We asked one of the authors, Prof. Evan Risko from the University of Waterloo, to comment on this study.

The Study

The Internet provides individuals with ready access to a staggering amount of information. How does access to this information influence what we are willing to say we “know” versus “don’t know”? To address this question we asked a number of participants a series of general knowledge trivia like questions (e.g., “what is the capital of France”). Participants had to decide and report whether they thought they knew the answer or not. There were two critical conditions. In the No-Internet-Access condition when participants responded that they knew the answer they provided it and if they responded that they did not know the answer they simply moved on to the next question. In the Internet-Access condition when participants responded that they knew the answer they, again, provided it but if they responded that they did not know the answer they now had to go and look it up on the Internet. The latter condition was designed to mimic the real-life situation in which a “connected” individual would, naturally, search the Internet for unknown answers to questions. Our main interest was in whether providing people this kind of access to the Internet would change what individuals were willing to say they knew (relative to when they did not have to look up unknown answers). Interestingly, it did. Specifically, in the Internet-Access condition individuals became less willing to say they knew the answer to the question. We think this change in behavior reflects one way that easy access to massive amounts of information can subtly influence what we are willing to say we know.

Harvard Senior Researcher David Weinberger on how filtering on the Internet is organized, and the web of knowledge which is completely public and incredibly rich

Background

Our study grew out of two independent lines of research. The first was a series of recent investigations into how interaction with the Internet might influence how we think. For example, Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel Wegner found that when people were presented with hard questions, words related to computers (e.g., Google) were primed. This suggests that a kind of association may exist in our minds between a lack of knowledge and the Internet – when we encounter the former our minds turn to the latter. The second line of research is concerned with metacognition or how we think about our own thinking. In particular, our research extends a long history of insightful work investigating how we decide what we know or don’t know.

Future directions

There is much more to learn about the influence of the Internet on our reliance on our internal knowledge stores. One important question to address is how the Internet exerts its influence on our willingness to say, “I know.” We think there exist a number of possible answers. For example, “finding out” the (likely correct) answer via an Internet search is likely associated with a rewarding feeling (e.g., we like to know the answers to questions) and this might undermine our desire to offer our own (possibly incorrect) answer. Ongoing experiments will help us to test this and other hypotheses.

If you would like to contribute your own research, please contact us at hello@serious-science.org

Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair, Head of Cognition and Natural Behavior Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo
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