NPR recently reported on a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General that shows that "[s]earching for answers online gives people an inflated sense of their own knowledge. It makes people think they know more than they actually do."
The researcher, "Fisher, began with a simple survey: he asked questions such as 'How does a zipper work?' or 'Why are there leap years?' He allowed just half of his subjects to use the Internet to answer the questions. People who had been allowed to search online tended to rate their knowledge higher than people who answered without any outside sources."
"To reveal factors that might explain why the Internet group rated their knowledge higher, [Fisher] designed follow-up experiments using different groups of people. First, he asked people to rate their knowledge before the test; there was no difference between subjects' ratings. But afterwards, the Internet-enabled subjects again rated their knowledge better than the others."
Fisher continued to design a slew of follow-up experiments to test the phenomena. But "[t]he results kept coming back the same: searching online led to knowledge inflation."
As for why this happens, Fisher notes that "[t]he more we rely on the Internet, the harder it will be to draw a line between where our knowledge ends and the web begins. And unlike poring through books or debating peers, asking the Internet is unique because it's so effortless. 'We are not forced to face our own ignorance and ask for help; we can just look up the answer immediately,' Fisher writes in an email. 'We think these features make it more likely for people to consider knowledge stored online as their own.'"
This study is highly interesting in the way that our psyches somehow acquires Internet knowledge without previously knowing the answer to a given search. And it's definitely something I will keep in mind before I become an insufferable know-it-all.