Why do we forget information that we just looked up?

The 

Google Effect

, explained.

What is the Google Effect?

The Google effect, also known as digital amnesia, is the tendency to forget information that is readily available through search engines like Google. We do not commit this information to our memory because we know that this information is easy to access online.

Where this bias occurs

Suppose that you’re reading a book and encounter an unfamiliar word. You decide to Google the word to see its definition. A few days later, you encounter the word again… but you can’t seem to remember what it means.

This situation describes the Google effect, where because information is readily available online, we do not commit it to memory. Google has become such an integral part of our daily lives that it was added as a verb to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006.1 It is so easy to “Google it”, that we may find ourselves repeatedly looking up the same information online instead of committing it to memory.

This bias exists not only for things we look up on search engines, but for most information that is easily accessible on our computers or phones. Do you know your parents’, or best friend’s number off by heart? The answer is probably no — and this is caused by the Google effect.

Individual effects

The ways in which we learn, problem-solve, and recall information are all impacted by the Google effect. While the Internet has opened up a new realm of possibilities for what information we can obtain, when that information isn’t being committed to knowledge, our engagement with the world can become very shallow.

Although some people believe the Google effect is a sign of being technologically savvy, there is no evidence that we are getting any better at researching information.2

Additionally, there is evidence that we do not evaluate the information we encounter online,2 which can be dangerous because a lot of information on the Internet is inaccurate.

Alternatively, the Google effect demonstrates an effectiveness when it comes to prioritizing information, where we have learnt to use the Internet as a repository for knowledge. We work collectively with the digital world, splitting the burden of encoding and storing information, known as transactive memory.3

We may no longer waste effort remembering something that can easily be looked online, but if the quality of that information is poor, the Internet is actually doing little to improve our intelligence and effectiveness.

Systemic effects

The Google effect suggests that the digital world is changing the way that we think. We are less likely to digest or deeply encode information, and instead, only remember that we can always “Google it”.


As educational institutions increasingly rely on digital methods for students to access materials and conduct research for essays, the Google effect will mean that we remember less and less of the information that we learn. Since we can’t remember the information, we will have to check the Internet again, causing a cycle where we become dependent on the digital world.

There has been a great deal of research that suggests that increasing dependence on the digital world has negative consequences. This includes decreased attention spans, increased anxiety, lower performance on cognitive tasks, and diminishing social skills.4

However, the Google effect is only new in its digital form, but our tendency to not remember information that we know we can access elsewhere is not a novel phenomenon. The Google effect is a form of transactive memory, where in a team or work environment, we develop a group memory.3 Information gets divided up into different people’s individual memories, and team members are only required to remember their chunk of information.

The Google effect can therefore be thought of as an effective way to not overload our brains with information, however, reliance on a computer can have different effects than dependency on our work team.

Why it happens

On a daily basis, our brains encounter lots of new information. It is difficult for us to commit all this information to memory, and therefore, we might have to prioritize what information we choose to remember.

Even though the Google effect is about forgetting information, anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell suggests that it actually could be a sign of efficiency.5 The Google effect causes us not to remember information that we can easily look up online, but this may be because knowing how and where to access the information is more important than knowing the small pieces of information themselves.

Why it is important

Although it is sometimes argued that the Google effect is an efficient way for us to prioritize what information we commit to memory, it causes us to become very reliant on the digital world.

The Google effect causes us to use the online world as a memory bank, believing that we will always have access to it. This might be useful for general information or facts, but not so useful when it comes to learning, or for storing important personal information.

For example, imagine that a young woman, Christina, is out at a bar one night and loses her phone. She starts walking home but realizes she doesn’t know how to get there — she is used to using Google Maps. She wishes she could call her parents to come pick her up, or even a taxi, because she feels uncomfortable walking at home alone at night. Christina sees a payphone, but she doesn’t know any taxi companies’ numbers, or her parents’ number, because she always looks them up in her phone. Christina has found herself in an uncomfortable situation that she can’t get out of because she has become too reliant on the digital.

The kind of situations in which we would need to access information that we usually have stored online are the ones we never expect to be in, which is why the Google effect can lead to uncomfortable situations where we can’t recall important information.

How to avoid it

It is difficult to completely avoid the Google effect, because many of our work or school responsibilities require us to look up information online. However, by being aware of the Google effect, we may be able to remind ourselves that there are better ways to expand our knowledge.

The first thing we can do is look to other sources to gather information. This may take the form of getting a book from the library or printing out a document instead of reading it on our computers. Taking hand-written notes instead of just reading information could also help us to remember it. Secondly, if we know that we did look up information online and can’t remember it, instead of turning straight to the Internet, we should pause and take a moment to activate our memory. If not, we create a dependency on the digital and will continue to have to Google information in order to remember it.

How it all started

The Google effect was first studied in 2011 by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel Wegner, three influential psychologists.3 With search engines like Google becoming the most obvious place people look for answers, Sparrow and her team wanted to see whether people had begun to treat the Internet like an external memory storage.

The psychologists conducted four experiments to examine the Google effect.

In the first experiment, participants had to answer yes/no trivia questions, and then had to complete a modified Stroop task (a task where words are written in different colors and you are asked to identify the color of the word). Researchers compared how long it took for participants to identify the color of computer terms like “Google” to the time it took them to identify the color of non-computer terms like “Nike”. The researchers found that it took participants longer to name the computer terms after hard trivia questions, suggesting that we are primed to think about computer terms when asked difficult questions which distracts us from being able to identify the color since our attention has been captured by the term.

In the second experiment, participants were split into two different groups. Every participant had to read and type out 40 general trivia questions. One group believed the computer would save the information, and the other thought it would be erased afterwards. The researchers found that those who thought the information would be erased had the best recall for the trivia statements that they had typed out, showing that we are less likely to commit information to memory that we think we can access later.

In the third experiment, participants once again had to read and type out trivia statements. For one third of the questions, participants saw a message “Your entry has been saved”, for another third they saw “Your entry has been saved into folder X” and for the last third, they saw the message “Your entry has been erased”. Afterwards, participants were given a recognition task, where they were shown 30 statements and had to decide if these statements matched the ones they had seen. Participants had the best memory for the statements they thought had been erased. Participants were also asked whether the statement had been saved, and where it had been saved. In this instance, participants better recalled which statements were saved than which were erased, suggesting that when we believe we will be able to access information later, we remember how to access it rather than the information itself.

In the final experiment, participants were told that all the trivia statements they read would be saved to a specific folder. Participants then had to write down all the trivia statements that they remembered, followed by having to determine where the information had been saved. Participants had better recall for which folder the trivia statement had been saved to than memory for the actual trivia statements themselves.

Example 1 - Altering experiences

A study conducted by Linda Henkel, a psychology expert on memory, examined whether the Google effect extended to photographs.6 Photographs are a form of external memory with photographs often being stored in our smartphones.

In Henkel’s study, participants went on a guided tour of an art museum and were given instructions to observe some objects and take photographs of other objects. Participants were aware that they would later be asked to recall the name of the objects and what the objects looked like. The next day, participants were asked to write down all the names of the objects that they had looked at, and a subsequent task asked them to recall details about them.

Henkel found that participants were significantly worse at remembering the names and details of objects that they had photographed compared to those that they had observed.

This study suggests that we absorb less of what we experience through photographs than what we experience through observation. With the rise in popularity of social media sites, people often take photographs daily. Henkel’s study suggests that people are less likely to remember events that we photograph, so having life experiences through the lens of a camera might decrease the quality of those life experiences because we aren’t really absorbing them.5

Example 2 - Cybersecurity

The Kaspersky Lab, a company dedicated to studying cybersecurity to help formulate innovative security solutions, has taken great interest into how the Google effect poses risks to our safety and productivity online. They have conducted a number of surveys to learn how people treat the information they acquire and store digitally.

One downside to the Google effect in the work environment is that people overestimate their ability to listen and type simultaneously. 44% of business people that the Kaspersky Lab surveyed claimed that typing notes caused them to miss valuable information such as contextual or emotional clues. Moreover, since we aren’t listening as well when typing, our typed records become the only place that information is retained. 13% of those surveyed admitted that they have lost a digital record and as a result are unable to remember anything about a particular conversation.7

The Google effect can also lead to safety risks when companies’ information is stored on digital technology. Another survey by the Kaspersky Lab showed that 58% of people surveyed do not use antivirus software, and only 29% of people back up their digital devices.8 This means that companies’ confidential information can easily be hacked, and someone’s hard work can go to waste if their computer crashes.

Summary

What it is

The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we can easily access online or on our digital devices. This includes general knowledge that we acquire through search engines as well as notes, contact numbers, or photographs saved on our computers and smartphones.

Why it happens

The Google effect occurs because our brains don’t prioritize remembering information that we will be able to access later. Although it can be a sign of being more effective with what needs to be remembered, it creates a dependency on technology that can have negative consequences on our intelligence.

Example 1 – Altered experiences

Photographs act like an external memory storage in a similar way that the Internet does. While photographs may help us remember something if you look at it, taking a photograph instead of just observing what is around us makes us less likely to be able to remember it without the help of our devices.

Example 2 – Cybersecurity

The Google effect means that employees are reliant on their digital devices to remember and store information. Employees are likely to use their devices to type out notes, which causes them to remember less of the conversation than if they had just focused on listening. Since devices become the only storage for important information, if computers crash, all that information is lost. Additionally, our dependency on technology means that a company’s confidential information might be stored online, leaving them at greater risk of having that information stolen or hacked.

How to avoid it

The easiest way to avoid the Google effect is to look to other sources to gather information. However, this usually requires more effort and time. Alternatively, we can try to take hand-written notes, or take a few moments before looking something up to see if we can activate our brains to remember it first.

Related resources

Algorithms for Simpler Decision-Making: The Case for Cognitive Prosthetics

In this article, Jason Burton, one of our writers with a strong background in Cognition and Computation, discusses our tendency to look to look to digital spaces for information that helps us make decisions. However, Burton questions how algorithms determine what kind of information we see and reflects on the human-algorithm relationship that we have come to rely on.

 

Sources

  1. Schwartz, B. (2006, June 29). Google now a verb in the Oxford English dictionary. Search Engine Watch. https://www.searchenginewatch.com/2006/06/29/google-now-a-verb-in-the-oxford-english-dictionary/
  2. Rowlands, I., Nicholas, D., Williams, P., Huntington, P., Fieldhouse, M., Gunter, B., Withey, R., Jamali, H. R., Dobrowolski, T., & Tenopir, C. (2008). The Google generation: The information behaviour of the researcher of the future. Aslib Proceedings, 60(4), 290-310. https://doi.org/10.1108/00012530810887953
  3. Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. (2007). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776-778. https://doi.org/10.1037/e633982013-286
  4. Makin, S. (2018, November 28). Searching for digital technology’s effects on well-being. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07503-w
  5. Roberts, G. (2015, July 16). Google effect: Is technology making us stupid? The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/google-effect-is-technology-making-us-stupid-10391564.html
  6. Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour. Psychological Science, 25(2), 396-402. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613504438
  7. Digital Amnesia at Work: the risks and rewards of forgetting in business. (2016). The Kaspersky Lab. https://media.kasperskydaily.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/89/2016/03/05232337/Digital-Amnesia-at-work-the-risks-and-rewards-of-forgetting-in-business-report.pdf
  8. From Digital Amnesia to the Augmented Mind. (2016). The Kaspersky Lab. https://media.kaspersky.com/pdf/Kaspersky-Digital-Amnesia-Evolution-report-17-08-16.pdf