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People who use the internet to retrieve information are more likely to use it again and less likely to use their memory, according to a study by UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Benjamin Storm.  

Published in the journal Memory, Storm finds the internet is changing the way people learn, remember, and solve problems.

Associate professor of psychology Benjamin Storm
Credit: Melissa De Witte/UC Santa Cruz

Storm researches human memory, with a special focus on the causes and consequences of forgetting. At his UC Santa Cruz Memory Lab, he and his team explore the role of forgetting in resolving competition during retrieval, overcoming fixation in thinking and problem solving, updating autobiographical memory, and facilitating new learning.

Study participants were given a mix of questions that Storm and his collaborators took from a trivia book. Some were considered difficult, e.g. “Who was the king of England during the American Revolution” and others easy, e.g. “What is a baby goat called?”

One group was asked to answer the questions from memory while another group was told to use the internet to find the answers. Participants were then asked another set of questions, only this time the questions were slightly easier and they had the option of using Google if they wanted. 

Storm found that participants who used the internet to answer the initial set of questions were more likely to use the internet to answer a second set. He also tested different conditions such as time and convenience. Storm found the effect still persisted, even when Google was a less-appealing option (participants had to get off a sofa and use an old, slow iPod touch instead of a desktop to access the search engine).

“At a general level, the findings suggest that using a particular information source—in this case, the internet—influences the likelihood of using that source again the future,” Storm writes.

But reliance might not be a bad thing, especially when accuracy is important, he says.

“Indeed, participants in the present research were more accurate in their responses to the trivia questions when they conducted a search than when they did not.”

Sometimes our smartphones are smarter than we are.