Google, self-serving bias and the fall of knowledge
A SEELE Neuroscience original open research
Fake news is the epitome of Internet credibility crisis. When I was a child, my English teacher shared with us a reading about the infamous massive panic Orson Welles caused when reading on live radio broadcast a fragment of “The War of The Worlds” back in 1938. The lesson at that day was, “on those years, people was too naïve toward mass media and judged everything as true”. Years have passed and we are facing an astonishing similar reality with internet. The recent events in US elections have demonstrated that most internet users do not distinguish if some news site is fake, satirical or propagandistic.
The fact that using Google Search and similar web browsers creates the illusion of knowledge is well documented in several journal papers, especially in the one titled Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge by authors Fisher, Matthew; Goddu, Mariel K. and Keil, Frank C. published back in 2015 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. We, at SEELE Neuroscience replicated one of the experiments of the paper with the intention to evaluate the participation of the Self-Serving cognitive bias when judging the own knowledge.
We generated a standard “general knowledge” quiz with ten items selected from an 8th grade knowledge compendium. A special Google Forms test with multiple choices was designed and uploaded with two sections: the first with the ten questions and corresponding multiple-choice answers. The second section with a self- assessment item with the following question: “How much of your knowledge a person should require to pass all questions of this survey?” Participants had three options: “less knowledge than mine”, “the same knowledge than mine” and “more knowledge than mine”.
Two independent researchers recruited people through social media with different kind of instructions. Researcher A recruited Group A with the following instruction: “This is a knowledge survey, please answer the questions of the following link. If you need to verify your responses, you can rely on Google browser but don’t use it to search for the answer”. Researcher B recruited group B with the instruction: “This is a knowledge survey, please answer the questions of the following link. As being a knowledge test, we encourage you on relying on your own without the use of external information”. In order to “pass” the quiz, a minimum of six correct answers were required but participants did not received feedback about their performance.
A total of 89 participants were validated for group A and 191 participants for group B after eliminating subjects not following instructions. Participants had an average age of 21 years old and gender proportion was ensured to 1 to 1. A statistical difference was detected (z= 2.898; P = 0.004 Yates corrected) when comparing the proportion of subjects between Group A (0.067) and Group B (0.215) who answered the self-assessment “more knowledge than mine” when asked about the amount of their knowledge someone should require to answer correctly all items of the quiz (-0.147, 95% CI -0.241 to -0.0532). This difference was also significant (z= 2.980; P = 0.003 Yates corrected) for the answer “the same knowledge than mine” (0.157, 95%CI 0.0591 to 0.255) between Group A (0.921) and Group B (0.764). No differences were detected between those answering “less knowledge than mine” (A=0.011, B= 0.021; z= 0.0865; P = 0.931 Yates corrected).
Despite having Group A a significant over-esteem of their self-knowledge when compared to Group B, there were no statistical differences on the outcome of the results of the quiz. The proportion of subjects who passed the quiz in Group A (0.629) and in Group B (0.660) was equivalent (z= 0.363; P = 0.716 Yates corrected) meaning that those who benefited from Google Search in fact did not performed better than those who relied on their own knowledge.
Self-serving bias is a well-studied cognitive bias where the perception reality, events, or an outcome is distorted in a way beneficial for oneself. It is usually linked to tendency of enhancing self-esteem but this is a very simplistic approach. A common scene of self-serving bias is when someone is sure to win the lottery with one single ticket, but after losing, this person immediately claims that he does not need that much money anyway. The core aspect of this bias is the actual distortion of perception, which can be innocuous as in the lottery example or extremely harmful when it becomes massive as in social media.
In this experiment we can see how the simple use of a web browser is enough factor to distort the perception of the performance in a general knowledge test and evaluate the own knowledge as enough to answer correctly all answers despite the actual performance of these participants was not superior to those who used their own knowledge. Internet credibility crisis does is a symptom of having massive users overestimating their own knowledge or understanding of facts? This would explain why after unmasking news as fake, those who retweeted or shared it, don’t really care about it, and have always a (mostly self-serving) explanation of considering irrelevant if fake or not.
In addition, there is an increasing tendency of not-sure-by-default sharing, where users propagate news, pictures and viral videos with the self-serving warning “might not be true, but it may be” label. This generates a cognitive protection against misinformation criticism, as there is a warning of not claiming the shared tale as true, but sharing it anyway because it “might” be true. We face an era where knowledge seems to be unessential to judge reality and it much more important being the one who “shared it first”, or more critical, being the one who “holds the truth”. While might sound catastrophic, social media will soon require controls about the sharing of some content. Google and Facebook have begun this by starting running especial algorithms to detect fake news but the task is no easy. Some sites with legit news are in fact propagandistic portals that skew data in favor of their own interests. The study of cognitive biases might be helpful on shaping the immediate future of social media.
About SEELE Neuroscience:
We are the leading lab in Latin America specialized in translational neuroscience for the private sector with more than 10 years of expertise and six certified labs within the region. We do not have “proprietary methodologies” but translate the models and principles most accepted by the scientific community to answer everyday questions. We only use replicable and auditable methods; our tools are electroencephalography (EEG), Event Related Potentials (ERP) and Implicit Association Tests (IAT). www.seele.education (in Spanish)