skip to content

Is the internet making us forgetful?

A study by Jun. Prof. Esther Kang provides answers.

Two people looking at a computer screen

If we can easily access information via Google, we are less likely to remember it. This is a summarised core result of a new study by junior professor Esther Kang, from the Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS) of the WiSo Faculty.

The study focused on the question of how the easy availability of information on the internet affects people's knowledge management. It showed that people who have access to information that is easily accessible and retrievable through search engines such as Google are less likely to process detailed information because they can easily find the information when they need it.

“When individuals know they have easy access to information, they are more likely to remember how to access it, for example, the search term, rather than remember the detailed information,” WiSo professor Kang summarises. This is because people are ‘cognitive misers’,  according to Esther Kang, with an inherent tendency to minimize the amount of information they have to hold in their head and avoid how much effort it takes to remember details. 

Specifically, individuals with high working memory capacity were less likely to remember details, but more likely to remember how to access the information (e.g., a keyword for a search engine query). They are also more likely to ensure easy access to information by registering with information sources. Thus, cognitive deficiencies could be due in many cases not to users' lack of cognitive skills, but the accessibility of online information and the efficient use of attentional resources.

Besides the theoretical perspective, the study brings some practical implications. "A common view of online communication is that greater access to information leads to a greater learning effect. However, the study results urge caution, as easy access to information does not guarantee that users will experience a learning effect, or that they will pay attention to the information," Professor Kang concludes. Given the new approach to individual knowledge management in digital contexts, communicators should therefore rather adapt the frequency of "notifications" to the characteristics of the user.

If, for example, media providers could in future emphasise the value of subscriptions for the protection of attention resources, it will become even more important for advertisers in general to make advertising messages as simple as possible so that they are easily accessible.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

•    To the study Studie byEsther Kang: Easily Accessible but Easily Forgettable: How Ease of Access to Information Online Affects Cognitive Miserliness
•    Jun. Prof. Esther Kang, Ph.D. at “Find an Expert”