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.