On constant Internet and saying ‘I don’t know’

We’ve all been there: someone asks you a question — a run-of-the-mill, I-know-this question – but before you answer, you panic and wonder if your answer is correct. Maybe you quickly ask Siri your question, hoping she can confirm or deny your assumptions. If so, you’re not alone: new research suggests that it may be the smartphone in your pocket that’s leading you to second-guess yourself.

In a study from the University of Waterloo, 100 participants were asked general knowledge questions, like ‘What’s the capital of France?” Participants indicated whether or not they knew the answer. For half of the study, participants had access to the Internet and could look up the answer when they responded that they didn’t know the answer. For the other half of the study, participants had no access to the Internet.

The UWaterloo Department of Psychology researchers discovered that the people who had access to the web were about 5% more likely to say that they did not know the answer to the question.

In fact, in some contexts, the people with access to the Internet reported feeling as though they knew less compared to the people without access.

“With the ubiquity of the Internet, we are almost constantly connected to large amounts of information. And when that data is within reach, people seem less likely to rely on their own knowledge,” said Professor Evan F. Risko, University of Waterloo professor and Canada Research Chair in Embodied and Embedded Cognition.

The researchers speculate that access to the Internet might make it less acceptable to say you know something but are incorrect. It is also possible that participants were more likely to say they didn’t know an answer when they had access to the web because online searching offers an opportunity to confirm their answer or resolve their curiosity, and the process of finding out is rewarding.

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