As of last week, European citizens can exercise their “right to be forgotten”—conferred by the EU court—by sending Google an online form explaining why they want unsavory information about themselves removed from search results. Google only launched the service four days ago, but it’s already flooded with requests—over 40,000 so far. But no matter how carefully Google attends to requests to modify our collective memory, the search engine may have already made its mark on the way individual memory functions.
Three years ago, a team of psychologists—Daniel Wegner at Harvard, Betsy Sparrow of Columbia, and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison—carried out a series of experiments designed to investigate how Google has changed the way we remember, and they found we recall significantly less if we think we’ll be able to look up the information later.
In one experiment, Wegner and his team had their subjects read 40 trivia statements—like, “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”—and type them into a computer. Half the participants were told that the statements would be saved and they’d be able to access them later, while the other half were told that the computer would erase the statements. In each condition, some of the participants were warned in advance that they’d be asked to remember the statements later (though this instruction didn’t have much of an effect on memory). After completing the reading and typing task, participants had to write down as many statements as they could remember. The ones who were led to believe that they’d have access to the statement later on remembered significantly fewer pieces of trivia.
In another experiment, the researchers compared people’s ability to recall information with their memory for where to find the information: Perhaps, they hypothesized, people are wisely diverting their memory away from simple information-recall and using the brain space to find information more effectively. In this part of the study, one-third of participants were told the statements they read and typed would be erased; one-third were told their entries would be saved; and one-third were told that their entries would be saved into a specific folder with a generic name like “FACTS,” “DATA,” or “INFO.” Afterwards, the psychologists administered a recognition task: They showed subjects all the statements—some of which had been slightly altered—and the participants had to guess whether or not the sentences had been edited. They performed best if they believed the statements had been erased, and worst if they were told that the statements were saved in a specific location they could access easily.
In another, similar experiment, the psychologists specifically compared people’s ability to recall the location of the information with their ability to remember the information itself. When everyone was told that the statements they read would be saved to a folder with a name like “FACTS,” psychologists determined that they were better able to remember the folders where the statements were stored than the trivia itself. “These results seem unexpected on the surface, given the memorable nature of the statements and the unmemorable nature of the folder names,” wrote the authors. “This is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), they are more likely to remember where to find it than to remember the details of the item. One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.”
Image via shutterstock.