The Google Effect

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New Technologies and how they have changed or are changing our lives has been a recurring theme over the last years. This year a new term popped up: the google effect.

Last year, we discussed a study that intended to explore the effect that easily available information accessible via digital devices like smartphones might have on people’s mind or ways of thinking and memorizing. Study participants were asked how many countries’ flags had only one color. What the researchers found was that participants’ first thought was not about the question itself, but about where to find the nearest access to an internet source.

Test yourself: how many countries have flags with only one color? Regardless of your answer, was your first thought about actual flags, or was it to consider where you would find that information? (…)

The authors argue that easy access to information via the Internet forms another transactive memory source. However, in this case, access to this source may actually hurt our memory. (Source:

I tried this test in my classes, and, interestingly, experienced the same result as the authors of the study above with a few exceptions. It was different once I told my groups that they didn’t need to look it up, but could arrive at the answer by pure deductive reasoning, in other words, by just thinking about the nature of country flags for a moment (they all have at least two colors, though some wisecracks claimed black and white not to be colors by definition.)

Of course you could argue that relying on external sources of information is nothing new. Everybody who has studied, be it at school, university, college or any other institution, knows that it is impossible to know or memorize the amount of knowledge amassed and required for insight into any subject. We often said in the past: it’s more important to know where to find the information than to know it yourself. To a certain extent, knowing where to find things, how to explore and research in order to answer whatever question you had was part of the essential skills necessary for being a good researcher (or research student). 

However, the internet availability of information seems to be adding a different dimension and have further reaching consequences for our minds and thinking than hitherto realized. First of all, the information sought after in most cases is purely factual or encyclopedic – kind of quiz show knowledge. The sophistication of the facts searched for might vary from more academic background knowledge to trivial factoids, but the prevalent concept of knowledge is factuality. In the best of cases, we need and use these facts to further our discussions and mutual quests to form opinions and attitudes or take a different, more informed perspective on whatever it is we are discussing or thinking about. This has always been the educated way of using facts, and was proceeded in awareness of the limits of factual knowledge: there is no objective truth, all knowledge is biased.

Exchanging knowledge has always been an element of social exchange and personal communication.

This concept of relying on external sources of information is not new to the computer age. In group environments, people develop what’s known as transactive memory, which is the sum of information held by the group (one of the authors of the current paper, Daniel Wegner, is the Harvard psychologist who first proposed the concept in 1985). Think of it like a group of experts working as a team, where each person has their own area of expertise—when you need some information you don’t have, you just go to the person who does.

As Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward point out in the article ‘How Google Is Changing Your Brain’ (December 2013 issue of Scientific American), the Internet might be beginning to replace friends and family as ‘companions in sharing the daily tasks of remembering’. (52)

And additionally they write:

It may be that the Internet is taking the place not just of other people as external sources of memory but also of our own cognitive faculties. The Internet may not only eliminate the need for a partner with whom to share information – it may also undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks. We call this the Google effect. (52)

This effect may also have further reaching consequences for our mental well-being. One class participant told us he had read an article where this effect was described in connection with Alzheimer’s patients and it seemed that those who relied more on external delegation of memorizing showed stronger effects of the disease than those who were or had been mentally more active in memorizing knowledge of their interest.

There have been instances in my own classes when students started using their personal digital devices to look things up. My first experience with this was way before the age of smartphones and fortunately a very rare incidence when one woman had brought her laptop along and, instead of communicating with the group, hid behind her laptop screen.

Today, whenever I observe someone attempting to check something on their smartphones, I ask them not too, but instead to pose their question in the group. Any question one person has, another is most likely to have as well. And if not, the others can provide an answer. A language classroom is about exchanging thoughts, ideas and knowledge. It’s about personal interaction. You don’t need to take recourse to some technical device. And I have yet to experience a situation in which really only one single person had no idea (unless they were in a totally wrong group language level wise).

I do allow smartphone research in cases where we as a whole group have a question we would like to inform ourselves about together right away. Anything that upholds group interaction. (Not that we couldn’t wait and do it as homework. Another one of my teaching principles: it’s always good to finish a classroom session with unanswered questions that might linger on for a while.)

Post scriptum:

One day I was sitting in an office of one of my one-to-one students and was staring at the world map she had hanging on the wall. It was a large one that also showed all the flags of all the world’s countries. To my dismay I realized: there was one of only one color – it was all green. I told her about the article we had read and discussed in class, and we both then indeed did go into the internet to find out what it was about this flag:

Green is the color of Islam, and the Libyan dictator Gaddafi had changed the original Libyan flag when he took over the country and replaced it with the symbol of his religion. So in a sense the Libyan flag had stopped being a country’s flag. Uni-colored flags generally stand for abstract concepts like e.g. the white flag for peace.

We went to google pictures, found the original Libyan flag, printed and cut it out, and pasted it over the green one. Order restored.

Follow-up topic:

Color symbolism

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