What DOES Google Know?

I have been teaching for seven years at a mid-sized university in the Midwest. The first few years of my teaching I didn’t feel that GOOGLE was yet the master. When it happened, it was sudden, shocking even, and a game-changer.


Students love when a lecture goes off topic. It is a chance to break free of monotony, to get the jitters out and most teachers will tell you that it can be a welcome distraction. So when a question comes up like, what is the capital of South Dakota? who was the second man on the moon? what exactly is goulash? there is a chance for laughter and idle chatter….unless there is GOOGLE.

One day about eight weeks into a fall semester course on Human Memory we got off track and started to discuss common comfort foods. I fondly described one of my favorites. “We’ve all had it” I said, a mixed up concoction of the following: meat, tomatoes/tomato sauce, noodles and whatever spare vegetables you would like.goulash

Based on my previous five years in New England in graduate school I fondly remember this combination as American Chop Suey. My students understood the homemade comfort food mashup I described but said I was calling it by the WRONG name. Suddenly, a voice from the back of the room said, I just Googled it and “we” call this Goulash. A great resonance fell over the rest of the class. From then on two things were understood. One, my students were committed to names of their foods and two, GOOGLE knows.

Is there anything GOOGLE could not add to any class. Forgot what the capitol of South Dakota is? Just Google it! Can’t decide who the second man to walk on the moon was? Oh, don’t think for even ONE minute about that. Just Google it too!

Just to be clear, Google is not inherently the problem. However, I didn’t have to think hard for examples of the many, many times I relied on Google for the answer. I could sense the subtle change the knowledge capabilities of Google was having on my own thinking. Can’t remember the name of a song but can remember some of the lyrics:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see…..
Why bother when Google will do it for you. 

The next semester in Human Memory my students read a paper by researchers Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner in 2011. Their work, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” See Abstract explains that people no longer put effort into thinking hard about answers to difficult questions. Rather, they are primed to think about computers and where they might access knowledge (e.g., the internet) on a specific webpage, file, or blog.

Does this so-called “Google Effect” influence your memory in any way? This was the question I posed to my students. There responses were not terribly surprising. Most of them suggested that relying on technology for the answers was “just what we do.” It is easy, effortless, and frees us from remembering all of the details we might face in a day. Besides, they agreed, it had been like this for the majority of the twenty year-old students’ young lives. When you don’t immediately know the answer, it is second-nature to ask the internet, they asserted.


I reasoned with my students that the problem is when you Google something you are short-cutting the retrieval process. Memory retrieval occurs when information is activated from long-term memory (information you currently are not thinking about) into short-term memory (memory that becomes part of your conscious experience). Stepping on retrieval with an urge to Google the answer prevents you from thoughtfully considering an idea. Sure, some might argue that retrieval should be automatic; that is, fast enough that if an answer doesn’t immediately come to you then why bother? While this can be true, it is very possible to use other, related, information that you MAY KNOW QUICKLY as cues. Consider a Trivial Pursuit question asking for the name of the second person to walk on the moon. If you really want to remember that person it is best to think of relevant cues. Perhaps you can remember the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Just thinking of Mr. Armstrong could lead to our “target” astronaut’s name. But, maybe you already thought of Neil and need something more. As a teacher I’ve learned that when cues are both relevant (highly related) and distinct (somewhat unusual), they can often trigger a target memory. If I told my class that this astronaut’s first name was the sound of a tiny insect best known for making honey….well then…most people would suddenly retrieve, Buzz! Yes, Buzz Aldrin was the second man on the moon.


So should you, me, or any of my students REALLY care about the Google Effect? Based on what I have learned about memory, I say, YES! Googling “it” can lead to self-handicapping. If we short-cut the retrieval process and reach for their nearest device too often then we are no longer “practicing memory.” We all need more practice with our memories. Sure it is fun to have data at our fingertips but if we heavily rely on the internet for immediate knowledge, we are less likely to stay the course when our memories are all we can rely on. Obviously, we don’t let students take their smart phones to a test. Your competitors at Thursday-night trivia expect your team to put the phones away. It is important to take the time and effort, on occasion, to rely on our own memory and retrieval process.

You owe it to yourselves to think about how to think! Remember, improving everyday memory requires two key components: 1.) Effort and a willingness to practice 2.) Paying attention.

What do you think….do YOU RELY TOO MUCH ON GOOGLE?

P.S. If you haven’t Googled it already, the capital of South Dakota is Pierre.


3 thoughts on “What DOES Google Know?

  1. Love this! It’s so very true. I feel like this is handicapping our children for sure. The first thing Kora ever wants to do is Google it. Even when you ask her question about a project she doesn’t know the answer off the top of her head she looks it up. Her reasoning is there allowed to use the computers at school so why does she need to memorize it. I’m just as guilty. But how do you get back from this, how do you actually start to remember and make yourself a attention more so you don’t need to “Google it!”


    1. Jesika! Yes, we all do it and to some degree, we need to use it. It is a great resources for things we absolutely do not know or want new information on. Think of Google as the Encyclopedia of today! That said, encourage Kora to stop and think about things she has already learned. Ask her to think about similar ideas or “cues” that can help spark the memory she is looking for. We can do this for ourselves too. I sometimes get over the impulse of Googling because I really want to rely on my own memory. Then I think of as many “contextual cues” or cues about the situation as I can (color, smell, similar words etc.) Maybe you and Kora can think of doing some of this when you are together. It will be a great way to further solidify memory!


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