Do Search Engines Make us Feel Smarter Than We Are? by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson 1


I have always been interested in the cognitive side of information literacy. How does our existing knowledge, personal beliefs, worldview, and experience intertwine into a decision-making process? How can we understand this process and use it to improve the teaching of information literacy skills?

That being said, I really enjoyed David McRaney’s interview with Yale University’s Matthew Fisher as they considered how the online context impacted self-perceptions of knowledge. Here’s a description from the You Are Not so Smart Podcast page:

The latest research suggest that though technology probably doesn’t make us stupid, it can, however, cause us to believe that we are smarter than we really are. Knowing you can search the internet is similar to knowing that you can consult a dictionary or a home encyclopedia or make a visit to the library when truly puzzled – but it’s different in that your brain, and the brains of every other cybercitizen, has become accustomed to the power to almost effortlessly reach into the internet and in a second or two bring back the info previously missing from your head, and you can do that mid-conversation, or while driving, or in the subway or on the couch or in line for a concert. That effortlessness and in-our-pockets availability seems to deeply affect how we categorize what is in our heads and what is not. When we consider all there is to know about a given subject, the convenience of search engines seems to blur the way we think about what we do and do not personally know about the world.webcamcaptures.cc

The interview is linked and embedded here.
You Are Not So Smart Podcast 063 – How search engines make us feel smarter than we really are

For instruction librarians, this research may have important implications. We know that students often turn to Google first when starting research because of familiarity and ease of use. But, we do not often consider how early Google searches may impact perceptions of knowledge. According to Fisher’s work, early Google searches may echo throughout the search process even if searches turn to other tools. You can read the work of Fisher and his team here: Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge.

Librarians may be interested in carrying this work further by considering other online tools such as subscription databases or other online repositories impact our self-evaluations of knowledge. I will add this to my list of studies that I wish I had time and ability to perform.

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Troy SwansonTroy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the co-editor of the recent book from ACRL, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


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