Is Your Knowledge Really Yours?

We all have a “know-it-all” in our lives. Whether due to age, immaturity, personality traits, or some combination of all three, most of us can call to mind someone who thinks they know far more information about far more topics than they really do. We have probably all been there ourselves through our insufferable teenage years. While these individuals can be quite irritating, is it possible that our modern world is contributing to the development of these so called “know-it-alls?” An National Public Radio (NPR) article I read recently discusses research that found that most people’s quick and easy access to Google and other search engines that provide answers to just about any question you can think of within a matter of milliseconds may be contributing to people’s feelings that they know far more than they actually do.

Why and how does this happen? As we have learned this semester, humans are subject to limited cognitive resources that we often seek creative ways to overcome such as the use of heuristics we discussed in class recently. The mind can increase its efficiency and available cognitive resources by using outside resources to supplement one’s own cognition. For example, when we are trying to recall an event from our childhood, we might ask a parent to describe the event or look at pictures in an old photo album to refresh our memory. This reliance on the memory and cognitive resources of another individual to supplement our own limited cognition is known as a transactive memory system. While these transactive memory systems can be beneficial in numerous ways and were likely used by our ancestors to aid in survival, they are subject to a variety of cognitive biases. When we treat the immediately accessed and numerous “cognitive resources” of search engines such as Google as an all-knowing partner in our transactive memory system, we begin to have difficulty differentiating between the information we actually know and the information continuously at our fingertips without ever realizing it (Fisher et al., 2015). This can lead to an inflated sense of one’s own abilities and that all too familiar “know-it-all” mentality.

Research conducted by Fisher et al. (2015) asked participants to rate their self-reported intelligence on a variety of different topics and unrelated questions under several different conditions. For example, in one trial of the study, researchers asked participants a question such as “Why are there leap years?” and allowed half of the participants to search the internet for an answer to the question and asked the other half to use only their own knowledge. Next they asked that same group of participants to rate how well they felt they could answer another unrelated question such as “How do zippers work?” using only their own knowledge. The participants who had been allowed to use the internet to answer the first question tended to rate their ability to answer the second unrelated question higher than the participants who answered the first question using their own knowledge. This inaccurate inflation of knowledge was found time after time under a variety of different conditions. Participants who were allowed to search the internet rated their cognitive abilities as higher than those who hadn’t been provided that opportunity, even if the non-internet group was provided with the same information a different way (Fisher et al., 2015).

These “shared” cognitive resources and heavy reliance on the internet as our trusty transactive memory system partner has a variety of implications for our efficient navigation through the world. If we cannot reliably rate our own knowledge and recognize our own cognitive shortcomings, what’s to say our ability to make decisions or perform any number of cognitive tasks is reliable either? While I tracked down and read the original article from the study, the NPR source did an adequate job highlighting key findings from the study, although it was somewhat lacking in background information to help readers understand the foundational concepts. The takeaway message? Consider where your knowledge is coming from before you assume confident ownership of it.


Fisher, M., Goddu, M. K., & Keil, F. C. (2015). Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(3), 674–687.