The Google effect and digital amnesia are two related psychological phenomena, which have to do with our tendency to forget information that is available online or stored digitally. For example, the Google effect and digital amnesia could cause someone to forget a certain piece of information, if they know they can find it later by searching the internet or their computer.
Because people are storing more and more of their information in digital formats, these phenomena are playing an increasingly large role in human cognition, so it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the Google effect and digital amnesia, understand why we experience them, and see how understanding them can benefit you in practice.
The Google effect
The Google effect is a psychological phenomenon that represents people’s tendency to forget information that they can find online, particularly by using search engines such as Google. For example, the Google effect can cause someone to forget a certain keyboard shortcut that they use frequently, if they know that they can easily find it online with a quick search.
Digital amnesia is a psychological phenomenon that represents people’s tendency to forget information that is stored in a digitally accessible manner, such as on their computer or smartphone. For example, digital amnesia could cause people to immediately forget someone else’s phone number after hearing it, because they know that it’s stored on their phone.
The difference between the Google effect and digital amnesia
The terms ‘Google effect’ and ‘digital amnesia’ are generally used interchangeably, and are often assumed to refer to the same general phenomenon, though the term ‘Google effect’ is significantly more common.
However, it’s possible to differentiate between these two terms, if they are taken to refer to two distinct phenomena, with the ‘Google effect’ referring to our tendency to forget information that is available via public search engines, and with ‘digital amnesia’ referring to our tendency to forget information that is stored in a digital manner. For example, under these definitions, forgetting information that we’ve stored on our phone (e.g. the phone numbers of our contacts), would be seen as a form of digital amnesia, but not as occurring due to the Google effect, since this information is stored in a digital location, but is not accessible via search engines.
Furthermore, under this categorization scheme, it’s possible to view the Google effect as being a subset of digital amnesia. Specifically, if digital amnesia is viewed as the tendency to forget information that is stored digitally, regardless of whether it’s publically accessible or private, then the Google effect can be seen as a subset of digital amnesia, which occurs in cases where people forget information that is stored in a digital location which is accessible via search engines.
Causes of the Google effect and digital amnesia
We experience both the Google effect and digital amnesia in situations where we choose, either intentionally or unintentionally, to rely on external, digital storage in order to remember certain pieces of information, rather than on our own memory. There are two main reasons why we make that choice.
First, in many cases, we are better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it than we are at remembering the information itself. Essentially, this means that, in many cases, relying on search engines and digital storage can provide us with better access to information than memorizing it ourself.
For example, one study on the topic examined doctoral dissertations at MIT, and specifically how the way students cite sources changed over the years. The researchers found that as search engines and digital storage became more commonplace, students started relying more on their ability to remember where relevant information appears in scientific literature, and on their ability to retrieve this information, rather than on their ability to remember the information itself. This proved to be a more effective mode of work, as it helped the students reference more papers in their work, and reference papers published across a wider range of years than they were originally able to.
Second, relying on search engines and digital storage of information is often easier, faster, more efficient, and more convenient than relying on our own memory. Essentially, even in situations where we might be able to remember information well ourself, it can still be advantageous to rely on external tools to remember that information for us.
For example, while it’s possible to memorize the phone numbers of people that we meet as they give them to us, it’s often much easier and more convenient to simply rely on our phones to save those numbers for us. This also frees up our cognitive resources, so that we can dedicate them to other things, such as engaging in conversation, instead of using them to memorize this information.
The role of transactive memory
Transactive memory is a type of collective memory through which groups collaborate on the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information.
A transactive memory system consists of the individual memory systems of the members of the group, together with a set of knowledge-relevant transactive processes. Essentially, this means that a transactive memory system consists of a set of related individuals, each of which stores some knowledge that they and other group members can access. Furthermore, individuals also store meta-memories, which are memories about the memories of others, which means that each member of the group is aware of where knowledge is stored within the group, and how they can access it.
Transactive memory is frequently used in various types of social groups, including among family members, friends, and coworkers. This type of memory is beneficial because it gives each person in the group access to more information than they could remember on their own, and allows each person to dedicate less cognitive resources to remembering this information than they would need to dedicate otherwise, since they know that someone else in the group has that information stored for them.
In the context of the Google effect and digital amnesia, digital storage of information can be seen as part of our transactive memory system. According to this view, the human mind can be conceptualized as being a part of a large network of transactive memory partners, which in this case consists of various digital sources that provide us with a way to store and access information that we don’t want to remember ourself. Essentially, this means that we rely on digital storage to serve as a way to store information, similarly to how we would rely on people that we share a transactive memory system with.
Note: there are some philosophical arguments against the idea that the internet is a part of our transactive memory. These arguments generally center around the fact that transactive memory is a feature of a distributed cognitive system between individuals, while the internet is only as a tool that we use to access information. However, this distinction, along with other philosophical considerations which relate to the various views of digital-based ‘E-memory’, aren’t crucial from a practical perspective, as long as you understand the general way in which our reliance on digital methods of memory storage and retrieval can lead to the Google effect and digital amnesia.
Accounting for the Google effect and digital amnesia
As we saw so far, the Google effect and digital amnesia mean that you are predisposed to forget information that you know will be available to you online or on one of your digital devices.
In some cases, the tendency to rely on digital means to store information can be problematic. For example, this might be an issue in situations where it’s preferable to remember certain information yourself, for various reasons, such as because you need to have that information readily available when you don’t have access to digital devices, or because it’s information that you should be able to internalize and understand well.
Furthermore, there are additional issues associated with using digital means to find and store information. One study, for example, found that while using the internet allows us to quickly discover new information, our ability to recall this information is worse than when we discover it through other sources, such as books. While this isn’t a problem in cases where you just need to know where to find the information, it can be an issue in cases where you need to remember the information yourself, such as if you’re studying for a test.
However, there are also situations where relying on digital means to store information can be beneficial, and there is nothing inherently wrong with intentionally forgetting things that you know will be accessible to your later in a digital manner. In general, most of us encounter huge amounts of valuable information each day, and strategically offloading parts of our memory onto digital devices, while relying on our ability to find information rather than on our ability to remember it, frees up the cognitive resources necessary to process of all of this information, which allows us to utilize it more effectively.
Password managers are a good example of a situation where selective digital amnesia can be beneficial, since they allow us to easily and reliably remember a large number of strong, unique passwords, something that we would generally struggle to do otherwise.
Overall, there are situations where you will benefit more from relying on digital devices to store and retrieve information, and there are situations where you will benefit more from memorizing information yourself. Therefore, when it comes to accounting for the Google effect and digital amnesia, the most important thing is to be aware of your tendency to forget information that is available via digital means, and to understand why you have this tendency.
Then, based on your knowledge of these phenomena, you should identify situations where relying on digital means would be the best way for you to remember something, and use those digital means accordingly. Furthermore, you should also identify situations where relying on digital means for information storage would cause more trouble than it’s worth, and make sure to memorize that information yourself instead.
Summary and conclusions
- The Google effect is a psychological phenomenon that represents people’s tendency to forget information that they can find online, particularly by using search engines such as Google.
- Digital amnesia is a psychological phenomenon that represents people’s tendency to forget information that is stored in a digitally accessible manner, such as on their computer or smartphone.
- We rely on the internet and on digital devices as external tools for storing and retrieving information, because we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it than we are at remembering the information itself, and because in many cases, doing so can be easier, more efficient, and more convenient than relying on our own memory, while also freeing up our cognitive resources.
- Relying on digital means to store information can be beneficial in many cases, particularly when we do so intentionally and strategically; for example, it’s generally preferable to rely on our phone to store other people’s phone numbers, instead of memorizing those numbers ourself.
- Relying on digital memory can be problematic in some cases, such as when it prevents us from processing and internalizing information; for example, this might be an issue if instead of memorizing a certain simple term, we repeatedly look it up online each time we need it.