Some people think that the internet is making us stupid. However, a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (.pdf) uncovers a more subtle truth – which is that using the internet fools us into thinking we know more than we actually do.

This is how the researchers – Matthew Fisher, Mariel Goddu and Frank Keil of Yale University – summarise their findings:

“As the Internet has become a nearly ubiquitous resource for acquiring knowledge about the world, questions have arisen about its potential effects on cognition. Here we show that searching the Internet for explanatory knowledge creates an illusion whereby people mistake access to information for their own personal understanding of the information.”

Their conclusion is based on a simple, but cunning, experiment:

“During the induction phase, participants were either instructed to use the Internet to find explanations to common questions… or were instructed not to use the Internet to find the answers to those same questions… During the second, entirely separate self-assessment phase, participants in both conditions were asked to evaluate how well they could explain the answers to groups of questions in a variety of domains…”

Of the two groups, the internet users expressed higher levels of confidence in their own knowledge:

“Participants who had looked up explanations on the Internet in the induction phase rated themselves as being able to give significantly better explanations to the questions in the unrelated domains during the self-assessment phase…”

Even though the information they’d accessed in the first phase of the experiment had nothing to do with questions in the second phase, they still reckoned they were better able to answer them.

So, what is it about the internet that makes us think we’re cleverer than we really are? Why is that we don’t get the same degree of false confidence from searching for information in books? The authors suggest that the immediacy of the internet undermines the distinctions we make between internal and external sources of knowledge:

“In contrast to other external sources… the Internet often provides much more immediate and reliable access to a broad array of expert information. Might the Internet’s unique accessibility, speed, and expertise cause us to lose track of our reliance upon it, distorting how we view our own abilities?”

Online information is also more interactive than paper-based sources. Even quite basic actions like entering a search term, clicking on a link or cutting-and-pasting text may seem more creative than passively reading a book or journal. A print publication is an obviously pre-existing object, but a page from the internet is something that the user causes to appear on a previously empty screen.

Perhaps, there’s a parallel between the internet effect described above and the contemporary culture of politics. It seems to me that our leading politicians hugely overestimate their understanding of the problems we face as a society. In fact, this must be the case – as I refuse to believe that they knowingly propose quite so many misconceived, disconnected and simplistic policy solutions.

Because policy development is now entirely subordinate to political communications and thus in thrall to the 24 hour news cycle, it is immersed in an environment of immediate feedback and interaction. In achieving news coverage and provoking instant comment, an illusion of impact is created – and while illusion and impact may be the same thing in matters of message and mood music, it is entirely misleading in respect to policy. Indeed, objectives become distorted – with policies designed for PR purposes, not for solving complex problems in the real world.