Easy Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Thing (Maybe)

Mar 9, 2015
Originally published on March 10, 2015 1:19 pm

We all know a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Research increasingly supports a related proposition — that easy knowledge can be a dangerous thing. More specifically, having knowledge at our fingertips, as smartphones and intelligent search algorithms increasingly allow, might have negative consequences for human cognition.

This idea isn't a new one, but it has received new life this week as media sources have turned to a paper by psychologists at the University of Waterloo provocatively titled, "The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking."

The paper, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, reports three studies investigating the relationship between smartphone usage and people's tendency to engage in fast and intuitive (as opposed to more effortful and reflective) modes of thinking.

If you believe the headlines, you should "stop relying on your smartphone to think for you" because "smartphones may make people dull." But that's not actually what the studies show. What the studies show is a correlation between heavy reported smartphone usage — and, in particular, reporting frequent use of one's smartphone to search for information — and lower accuracy on reasoning problems that require effortful, deliberate thinking. What the studies don't show — because they cannot, given the methodology — is direct evidence for a causal relationship between smartphone use and "lazy" thinking.

Correlation is not causation, but that doesn't mean correlational evidence can't be used to constrain causal hypotheses. In fact, the researchers go to some efforts to rule out some possible explanations for the association they find. For example, it isn't the case that "lazier" thinkers are simply more likely to overestimate their smartphone usage across the board: The researchers found no association between reported use of one's smartphone for social media or entertainment and performance on the reasoning tasks. The researchers also found that those who used their smartphones most often weren't simply more inclined to boredom, and therefore both smartphone-dependent and less inclined to engage in effortful reasoning.

But this still leaves a few plausible options. It could be, as the headlines suggest, that using smartphones to search for information makes people dull, and that stopping this behavior would be better. It could even be that heavy smartphone usage does lead to lazy thinking, but that the information supplied by smartphone searches more than compensates, such that one shouldn't stop: Being a lazy human with a smartphone could be better than being a more reflective reasoner without one.

But another possibility is that the headlines get the causal order wrong. It could be that a (pre-existing) inclination to reason less effortfully leads some people to use their smartphones to search for information more often. On this view, smartphone usage is the symptom, not the cause, of lazy thinking.

Or, it could be that heavy reliance on smartphones and poor performance on reflective reasoning tasks have a common cause, but not the one tested by the researchers (susceptibility to boredom). It could be, for example, that some people are less effective when it comes to figuring out the most efficient or reliable approach to answering some questions. As a result, they rely too heavily on intuition when faced with tricky reasoning tasks, and too heavily on their smartphones when it comes to seeking information.

So, is easy knowledge a dangerous thing?

Maybe. But the reasons are likely more subtle than the headlines suggest. Easy knowledge — of the kind provided by smartphones — could be dangerous not because it makes us lazy thinkers, but because it makes us poorly calibrated thinkers: Thinkers who are less attuned to the accuracy and completeness of what we think we know. That, in turn, could make us more likely to use our smartphones to search for information obtainable by other means, and also less effective when it comes to recognizing problems that require going beyond intuitive (but inaccurate) solutions.

But these, of course, are empirical hypotheses. I can't find out if I'm right by asking my smartphone, by consulting my intuitions, or even by engaging in deep thought. Uncovering the effects of easy knowledge requires hard science. Research to date is a start, but only that.

Any well-calibrated thinker can tell you that there's a lot we don't know — and well-calibrated headlines should reflect that!


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo.

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