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 which 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 could cause someone to forget a certain keyboard shortcut that they use relatively frequently, if they know that they can easily find it with a quick online search.
Digital amnesia is a psychological phenomenon which represents people’s tendency to forget information that is stored in a digitally-accessible manner, such as on their computer, smartphone, or online account. 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 a public search engine, 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 digital amnesia, but not as occurring due to the Google effect.
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 which is stored digitally, regardless of whether it’s private or publically accessible, 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.
Why people experience 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 who conducted the study 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 that information, rather than on their ability to remember the information itself. This allowed them to reference more papers, published across a wider range of years.
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 could still be advantageous in many ways 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 them 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 needlessly 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 therefore consists of the individual memory systems of the members of a group, together with a set of knowledge-relevant transactive processes which occur between the various group members.
Essentially, 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 of where knowledge is stored in 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 allows each person in the group to remember large quantities of information better than they could on their own, and to dedicate less cognitive resources to remembering all the shared information, 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 consist of various digital sources that provide us with a way to store and access information that we don’t want to remember ourself.
Note: there are some philosophical arguments against the idea that the internet is a part of our transactive memory. These arguments 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 which we use to access information. However, this distinction, and 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 this form of memory relates to the Google effect and to digital amnesia.
Accounting for the Google effect and digital amnesia
As we saw so far, the Google effect and digital amnesia mean that we often forget information that we know can be found online or on one of our digital devices. However, as we also saw, while this can potentially be an issue, there is nothing inherently wrong with intentionally forgetting things that you know will be accessible to your later in a digital manner.
We have so many things to remember, that using this form of external memory can be highly beneficial. Password managers are a good example of a situation where selective digital amnesia can be beneficial, since they allow us to reliably remember a large number of strong, unique passwords, something that we would often otherwise struggle to do effectively otherwise.
There are other benefits to strategically forgetting things. Notably, most of us have no way of remembering all the valuable information that we encounter every day. Because of this, strategically offloading parts of our memory onto digital devices, and relying on our ability to find information rather than on our ability to remember it, frees up the cognitive resources necessary for processing of all of this information, which allows us to utilize it more effectively.
Nevertheless, relying on devices to remember for you can be an issue in some cases, such as if would be more beneficial to remember a certain piece of information directly. 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:
- Information that you need to have readily available when you don’t have access to digital storage or to a search engine.
- Information that is crucial to remember since you cannot afford to rely only on a digital backup.
- Information that you want to internalize and remember in the long-term.
Therefore, the important thing is to be aware of the Google effect and digital amnesia, and to have them under your control. That is, the decision to forget certain pieces of information because you know you can retrieve them digitally is one that you should be making in a conscious and strategic manner.
Summary and conclusions
- The Google effect is a psychological phenomenon, which represents people’s tendency to forget information that they can find online, using search engines such as Google.
- Digital amnesia is a psychological phenomenon, which represents people’s tendency to forget information that they have stored digitally, whether it’s on some devices, such as their smartphone or computer, or in some software.
- We rely on the internet and on digital devices as external tools which can be used to store and access information that we need, 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 reliable than relying on our own memory.
- Relying on digital devices to store information can be beneficial in many cases, particularly when we do so intentionally and in a strategic manner, in situations where we benefit from freeing up our cognitive sources and relying on a reliable storage location for information.
- Relying on digital memory can be problematic in some cases, such as when it prevents us from processing and internalizing information, or when it forces us to repeatedly search for important information that it would be preferable to remember directly.