Actively browsing the internet hampers the in-built knowledge that we actually possess, a new study has revealed.
This is because we fail to recognise the extent to which we rely on external sources for information, researchers at Yale University in the US said.
"The internet is such a powerful environment, where you can enter any question, and you basically have access to the world's knowledge at your fingertips," said lead researcher Matthew Fisher from Yale University.
In the study, participants rated their ability to explain the answers to common questions (for example, how do zippers work?) after either searching the internet to confirm their explanation, or being specifically instructed not to use it.
In the subsequent self-assessment phase, participants were asked to rate how well they could explain the answers to groups of questions from a variety of domains that were unrelated to the induction phase questions.
Participants who searched the internet in the induction phase rated themselves as being able to give better explanations than participants who were not allowed to search the internet.
This result was obtained even when participants in the internet condition were given a specific web source to find (e.g. please search the scientificamerican.com page for this information) and participants in the no internet condition were shown text from that same website.
In other words, searching for explanations online led to increases in self-assessed knowledge even when both groups had access to the same explanatory content.
"It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source. When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the internet," Fisher explained.
Higher self-assessed knowledge was also observed following unsuccessful internet searches -- meaning thereby searches that did not yield an answer to the question.
The authors caution that the illusion of knowledge with respect to the internet could have negative consequences in situations in which the internet is not available, and individuals think they know more than they really do.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.