New Research Suggests The Internet Makes Us Overconfident When I saw the Washington Post headline “Internet searches are convincing us we’re smarter than we really are” in my Facebook feed yesterday, I was only a little bit skeptical. Most readers are probably aware that I have been studying self-esteem and narcissism for some time, particularly the aspect of overconfidence. Over confidence prevents learning and interferes with rationality, so it is important to understand its sources.

It seems to be a rare moment these days when I can point to a mainstream media piece reporting a finding from the field of psychology without mistakes ranging from a minor distortion of the implications to facts so incorrect that they’ve reported the opposite of what was found. I’m thankful to say that this time the Washington Post’s piece is quite good, although the headline doesn’t quite fit.

The research is not flawless, but the authors address most of the limitations by running a series of experiments. The overall large sample size and a number of controls and checks compensate for the fact that it was conducted online. It’s not perfect, but few studies in this field are. It is just one series of experiments, so any conclusions drawn should be tentative.

All of that said, the findings are interesting. What they found: people who were asked to use the internet to find or confirm their answers to a series of questions gave, on average, higher ratings of their ability to answer questions in a different domain than those who were asked not to consult the internet. This finding held across experiments and the researchers were able to ferret out some details, including:

  • This was an increase in confidence among internet users, not a decrease in confidence among those not allowed to consult the internet.
  • The increase was not due to access to information or even the use of the internet to get the information. It was the act of searching for that information that caused the increase in confidence.
  • Participants were not considering their access to knowledge in their responses about ability, but their knowledge. They appeared to be conflating shared knowledge (the internet) with personal knowledge (what’s in their heads).

In one experiment, half of the participants were asked to search for specific web pages (e.g., a page about dimples on golf balls) while the other half received the information on those pages. This shows that the difference in confidence cannot be attributed to the knowledge itself, but the act of using the internet to search for it. In another, participants did not rate their ability to answer the subsequent questions, but instead predicted their brain activity while doing so. We cannot attribute the difference in confidence levels to assumptions that access to information would be available. People really believe they possess the knowledge.

Overconfidence is one characteristic in a list of those associated with narcissism, so it is useful to look at these findings in relation to narcissism in general, especially considering the historical context. The world wide web’s emergence is relatively recent. In The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge and Campbell document a sharp increase in narcissism over the past 30-40 years. Although they attribute that increase to changes in culture, tracing it back to a best-selling self-help book called I’m Okay, You’re Okay that was popular in the early 1970s, cultural trends of entitlement can be seen decades earlier in “you deserve it” advertising approaches. Certainly the self-esteem movement of the 80s and 90s moved it along. So far, the internet’s blame has been limited to the vanity aspect of narcissism. There has been quite a bit of research suggesting that social media users are, on average, more narcissistic than others, but such correlations are confounded by factors of age, gender, and others difficult to tease out. It would also be extremely difficult to determine the direction of cause.

The experiments are limited to internet search and the specific characteristic of overconfidence, but they do not suffer from the same problems of confounding as those related to social media use. These findings suggest that searching the internet actually causes an increase in one’s self-assessed knowledge. Perhaps people think of the internet as an extension of the self.

The bottom line, I think, is that overconfidence clearly has many sources. Given this research, it appears that we can count the existence of Google™ among them.

Fisher M, Goddu MK, & Keil FC (2015). Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 25822461

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1 comment to New Research Suggests The Internet Makes Us Overconfident

  • Robert Bramel

    This sounds remarkably like the Dunning-Kruger effect. To quote from Wikipedia,

    “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.”