Friday, May 8, 2015

“I’m Not An Expert, But…”

My television set has a few new dings in it as a result of my flawless aim and utter vexation with yet another annoying TV commercial. This time, it’s Comcast who is driving me to reach for the nearest object to throw at the TV. The cable company has a new commercial featuring a cute little black girl who tells us “It makes me happy to go on the computer. I like feeling… smart!” No, sweetheart, you may be cute, adorable even, but logging on to the Internet doesn't make you smart anymore than walking into a library does. Osmosis only works for plants; humans have to absorb knowledge the hard way: through the process of learning.

But the Comcast little girl is not alone in her misconception that access to information equals intelligence. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that “searching the Internet for information may make people feel smarter than they actually are.” Even more astounding, people felt smarter even when their search for knowledge turned up empty. The researchers were shocked to discover that “study participants had an inflated sense of their own knowledge after searching the Internet even when they couldn't find the information they were looking for.”

One of the researchers interpreted this result as being due to the fact that the World Wide Web gives users “access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips” and it becomes easier to confuse their own knowledge with this external source. He cautioned this may lead people to be “wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet.”

An inflated sense of personal knowledge can be dangerous. We all laughed at Holiday Inn Express’ “Stay Smart” ad campaign, in which ordinary people with no special knowledge or training were able to perform amazing feats requiring such knowledge by appending
 its well-known punch line: “No, I’m not a [doctor, nuclear physicist, etc.] but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” But in real life, as the study researcher notes, “It could be important for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when they actually don't.” Ya think?

Not only does searching the Internet create an illusion of personal knowledge, but the ego boosting effect is exacerbated by the ever-increasing use of smartphones to access the Web. Having portable access to the world’s font of knowledge further inflates people’s perception of their own intelligence. We've all experienced this when discussing a topic over drinks with a group of friends when one will whip out a smart phone and brag, “I know the answer to that.”

Of course, you can rely on everything you read in my column, even if I’m not an adorable little black girl. After all, I have a high-speed Internet connection and I did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

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