Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Annual Report from the Conversable Economist for 2013

At the beginning of each year, it seems useful to reflect on what I'm seeking to accomplish with this blog. In previous years, at the end of 2012 and the end of  2011, I focused mostly on explaining and justifying the tone I'm trying to achieve with the blog: that is, bringing forward themes and arguments and evidence mostly from research and academic sources that I found interesting, with a comparatively light dose of my own opinion. Here, I will focus on a different purpose for this blog: using the blog as a memory partner, to expand own effective memory. I draw on an essay by Daniel F. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward called "How Google is Changing Your Brain," in the December 2013 issue of Scientific American. (The essay doesn't seem to be freely available on-line, but many readers are likely to have access through library subscriptions.)

In the past, many people dealt with the complexity of their day-to-day world by dividing up information and memory. Sometimes the division is between people: My wife does a vastly better job of remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates than I do, while I often take the lead on planning that family vacation a few months off. Many of us have friends, or people we hire, to help with knowledge about hooking up electronics or minor household repairs. We use cookbooks instead of trying to memorize recipes. And of course, many of us live surrounded by little scraps of paper with obscure and often undecipherable notes that were written to jog our memories.

The web offers tools for organizing and accessing information that doesn't rely on personal memory. An electronic calendar can be a reminder of dates and times. A recipe can be retrieved by remembering a few key ingredients. How to fix the printer or deal with the programmable thermostat is only a few clicks away. Wegner and Ward say it this way: "Our work suggests that we treat the Internet much like we would a human transactive memory partner. We off-load memories to "the cloud" just as readily as we would to a family member, friend or lover. The Internet, in another sense, is also unlike a human transactive memory partner; it knows more and can produce this information more quickly."

They point to some intriguing experiments in psychology about how people rely on the Internet as a memory partner. For example, in one study of how people offload their memory to the Internet, researchers

...asked participants to copy 40 memorable factoids into a computer (for example: ''An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain''). Half of the people in the experiment were told that their work would be saved on the computer; the other half were told that it would be erased. Additionally, half of each group was asked to remember the information, whether or not it was being recorded by the computer. We found that those who believed the computer had saved the list of facts were much worse at remembering. People seemed to treat the computer like the transactive memory partners that we started studying decades ago: off-loading information to this cloud mind rather than storing it internally. Strikingly, this tendency persisted when people were explicitly asked to keep the information in mind. It seems that the propensity for off-loading information to digital sources is so strong that people are often unable to fix details in their own thoughts when in the presence of a cyberbuddy.

In another study, using Google to search for answers made people perceive themselves as smarter.

[W]e asked people to answer trivia questions with or with out the assistance of Google and then asked them to rate themselves on this scale. Cognitive self-esteem was significantly higher for those who had just used the Internet to search for answers. Incredibly, even though answers came verbatim from a Web site, people in the study had the illusion that their own mental capacities had produced this information, not Google. To ensure that people had not felt smarter simply because they were able to answer more questions with the assistance of Google, we followed with a similar study in which those who did not use the search engine received false feedback that they
had given the right answers to almost all the trivia questions. Even when participants in both groups believed they had performed equally well, those who had used the Internet reported feeling smarter. These results hint that increases in cognitive self-esteem after using Google are not just from immediate positive feedback that comes from providing the right answers. Rather, using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set.
At some level, people are not wrong to feel "smarter" when they can access the Internet. After all, a standard measure of intelligence is that if you can answer the question, you are "smart." When I use this blog as a place to store up useful quotations, figures and tables, or bits of analysis and phrasing, the "search" command makes it much easier for me to access specific material on command in the future--and not just to access a dim memory that a year ago I'm sure I read something somewhere on the topic. This effect is especially useful if I have some time to prepare an answer or to give a talk.

But there is a danger here. I remember once reading a comment about a writer who was known as especially witty and incisive in print, but was regarded as a dull conversationalist. When asked about this disjunction, the writer commented along these lines: "I'm like a person with a million dollars in the bank, but only a few pennies in my pocket." Of course, I can't remember the exact quotation or who the writer is, because I don't have the comment recorded on my blog!

But as we offload our own memories and sense of intelligence to the web, we need to beware of some cognitive biases. For example, it is troubling to me that people feel "smarter" when they get an answer from a search engine. It is troubling to me that we may outsource our memories to the Internet, in effect choosing to remember less. Wegner and Ward write: "The psychological
impact of splitting our memories equally between the Internet and the brain's gray matter points to a lingering irony. The advent of the "information age" seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before--when their reliance on the Internet means that they may know ever less about the world around them." Ideally, of course, a person might try to rely on the Internet as a repository for facts and background, thus freeing up some mental resources for analysis and creativity. This blog is in a way an experiment in which I try to learn how to strike that balance for myself.

As 2013 comes to a close, this blog is typically attracting 1500-2000 pageviews per day. The pageviews, of course, don't count the 270 people who are signed up to receive posts by e-mail, or those who receive the blog via an RSS feed (for example, about 720 people are subscribed to this blog on feedly). There are about 530 subscribers to my Twitter feed, which is almost always just the title of the latest blog entry and a link. Thanks to all my readers, but especially to the regulars who check in a few times a week or a few times a month. And thanks in particular to those of you who use social media to recommend blog posts to others. Although one main purpose for this blog is to extend my own effective memory, I am delighted to have readers along for the ride.