The Google Effect and Transactive Memory

A brief piece1 in Scientific American Mind reports on some of the results of experiments done by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow. In one of the experiments two groups of undergraduates were presented with trivia statements. One group was told that they could retrieve this information later on their computers, and the other group were told that they could not retrieve this information on the computer. The former group exhibited worse recall than the latter group. This finding should not surprise anyone. Sparrow said that this finding does not mean that the internet is dumbing us down. Rather we are adapting to an internet world.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should realize that relying on the internet is an example of transactive memory. When we can readily access the information on the internet, that is referred to as accessible transactive memory. When we need to search for information on the internet, then that is an example of available transactive memory. All the information that is resident on the internet is part of the vast amount of information in potential transactive memory.

I can imagine tests in the internet age allowing students to bring their computers to class and to access the internet while taking essay examination. The capacity to find and assemble this information into coherent essays should easily be accepted as a valid measure of understanding. It is understood that the essays should include references and links to references.

Still, there are dangers to relying too heavily on transactive memory. There is useful analogy here to physical exercise. Currently, there is technology available to allow some of us to avoid all physical exertion. Unfortunately, making heavy use of this technology can have adverse effects on physical health. Similarly, placing too heavy reliance on transactive memory might have adverse effects on brain health. There are also questions regarding epistemology, how do we know what we know. A reasonable assumption is that information that can be recalled from our personal memories is more deeply encoded and better understood, than information we need to look up in some external source. Too much reliance on transactive memory can led to us becoming familiar with a large amount of information, without having anything akin to mastery with any of it. Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide how well we need to know it. Transactive memory is a great convenience. Committing everything to personal memory would slow us down and limit the breadth of our knowledge. There is this tradeoff between breadth and depth of knowledge that needs careful consideration.

1Casselman, A. (2012). The Google Effect. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 7.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Response to “The Google Effect and Transactive Memory”

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