Effect of the Internet on Brain and Cognition

06 Apr 2018

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  • Robert Deichert


Research Article Review

Article 1: “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge” (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Published online March 30, 2015)

Matthew Fisher, Mariel Goddu, and Frank Keil, the three researchers in charge of this study, were interested in studying the Internet’s effects on the brain and cognition. More specifically, they wanted to find out if having access to the Internet for the purpose of searching for answers to general knowledge questions would increase one’s self-assessment of confidence in answering other questions unrelated to the original Internet-based questions.

In introducing the topic, the researchers introduced the idea of a transactive memory system - a system wherein multiple individuals encode and retrieve memories and information as a whole. This allows individuals in a group to divide cognitive tasks between group members, and it reduces the mental load on each individual within the group. As an example, in the case of a three-person hunting and gathering group, one individual may be responsible for remembering where to find food, another with how to hunt animals, and another with how to cook the food. Each individual does not have to remember all three - the entire set of information is stored across the memory systems of all three individuals. All individuals are required to work together and piece together their individual stores of knowledge to hunt and gather food, and all individuals rely on each other for information. This is a transactive memory system.

The idea behind this study is that, theoretically, one individual and the Internet can form a sort of transactive memory system in which the individual feels that the vast stores of knowledge on the Internet are readily accessible at any time, and the individual will feel much more confident in his or her ability to answer general knowledge questions simply because he or she can query an Internet search engine (the other party in this sort of transactive memory system) at any time and access the knowledge stored on the Internet. To test this hypothesis, the researchers used a between subjects design with two groups of participants and two conditions. Participants in the first group were asked a series of general knowledge questions and told to use the Internet to find answers. Participants in the second group were asked the same set of general knowledge questions; however, they were told not to use the Internet to find answers. After this, participants from both groups were asked to rate their ability to answer unrelated questions from various subjects. The study didn’t test actual ability to answer subsequent, unrelated questions, but rather perceived ability, or confidence.

The resulted showed that participants who used the Internet to look up general knowledge questions prior to being asked to rate their confidence in answering other questions were significantly more confident in their ability to answer the subsequent, unrelated questions than the individuals who did not use the Internet to search for answers to the initial knowledge questions. Various additional experiments were performed by the researchers to account for time spent answering questions while searching the internet and whether participants were considering Internet knowledge when self-assessing confidence. Additionally, the study showed that this confidence-boosting effect is a result of having access to and using an Internet search engine. After using an internet search engine, participants were much more confident in their own knowledge and in their ability to answer any other general knowledge question, even though the knowledge was not stored in their mind but on the Internet.

Article 2: “Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online March 30, 2015)

In this study, researchers wanted to determine whether or not a connection exists between an individual’s usage of “I-talk” and his or her level of narcissism. “I-talk” is the use of first-person singular pronouns such as I, me, and my. It is a commonly held belief that individuals who talk about themselves frequently and use a large amount of I-talk are more narcissistic than those who do not. However, this intuitive relationship between I-talk and narcissism hasn’t been thoroughly tested and concretely proven or disproven. The goal of this study was to definitively identify a relationship between the two, if such a relationship exists at all.

Very few studies have been done on this topic, and the results of those studies have been inconsistent. Additionally, previous studies on this topic have not employed very large sample sizes. This research study’s goal was to come to a concrete conclusion on the topic by employing a very large sample size and answering a few related questions concerning the relationship between gender, I-talk, and narcissism and context, I-talk, and narcissism.

To accomplish this goal, researchers set up a large database of information from over 4,000 participants and 15 individual samples collected across five laboratories in the US and Germany. Each sample contained anywhere between 68 (in the case of Sample 2) and 1,209 (in the case of Sample 14) participants. Each sample was assigned to participate in a different activity designed to identify usage of I-talk in participants. For example, in Sample 1, university Psychology students videotaped self-descriptions that were later transcribed and analyzed for I-talk. In Sample 4, university Psychology students were seated in a classroom at random and asked to individually step forward and introduce themselves to the other participants in the classroom. They also participated in various other tasks, including writing down attributes about themselves and rating the other students’ presentations. Everything was transcribed, recorded, and analyzed for I-talk usage. Other samples involved analyzing participants’ Facebook status updates, performing a stream-of-consciousness recording task, and other various activities designed to allow for the measurement of I-talk. Additionally, each group’s assigned task was categorized based on the context of the activity prescribed by the task. These included identity, personal, impersonal, private, public, and momentary thought contexts.

After each participant in each sample group participated in the prescribed activity, he or she completed a narcissistic personality questionnaire and a self-esteem test. Most participants were administered the 40-item or 16-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem test.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that there is not a statistically significant connection between I-talk and narcissism. Participants’ self-esteem and narcissism scores had no significant correlation with their usage of I-talk. Additionally, the context of the activity did not affect this finding. There was a slightly higher correlation between male participants’ use of I-talk and narcissism than females’ use of I-talk and narcissism, but it was still statistically insignificant and near-zero, just as for the female participants. The researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, there is no connection between I-talk and narcissism, and this applies to all conversational contexts and genders.

Article 3: “Finding a Needle in a Haystack: Toward a Psychologically Informed Method for Aviation Security Screening” (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Published online November 3, 2014)

The researchers involved in this study identified a significant problem with current aviation security screening procedures and introduced a new security screening method of their own creation. They provide experimental evidence suggesting that their method is much more accurate and consistent in detecting deceptive passengers passing through airport security checkpoints.

Currently, most aviation security checkpoints employ a behavioral method of deception recognition. Security screeners look for nonverbal behavioral cues from passengers that may indicate that the passenger is trying to deceive the security screener, including twitching, nervousness, aggressiveness, fidgeting, and some verbal indicators such as stumbling over words and hesitating while speaking. This method results in an alarmingly low rate of passenger deception detection of 5%. This is, according to the researchers, a result of the failure of this method to account for the real content of the passenger’s verbal account and the truthfulness of his or her statements.

The researchers proposed an alternative method of screening called Controlled Cognitive Engagement (CCE), which was developed based on laboratory studies done on veracity testing techniques in two-person verbal exchanges. CCE does not focus on behavioral cues, but rather on the actual verbal exchange and conversation content between screener and passenger. CCE involves a security screener conducting a short, one-on-one interview with a passenger. The interviewer does not ask scripted questions; instead, the interviewer uses a process to create new questions in real time for the passenger that are based on the conversational context of the interview. CCE is trained to security screeners as an algorithm that the screeners can use while conducting an interview to create unique questions for each passenger that are designed specifically to test for passenger truthfulness. Interviewers can then analyze a passenger’s answers to all of the question for consistency and, thus, truthfulness.

To experimentally test CCE and compare it to the traditional, behavioral method of aviation screening, the study employed two groups of security agents and two groups of passengers. The first group of security agents was assigned to use traditional behavior-based screening at a checkpoint, and the second group was assigned to use CCE screening. The first passenger group was a genuine group of passengers selected from individuals passing through the airport checkpoint. The second group of passengers was a sample of individuals chosen by the researchers to pass through the same security checkpoint, but with a deceptive cover story being told to screeners. The two passenger groups were matched in composition by the researchers. The researchers measured the rate of detection of deceptive passengers for non-CCE security agents and CCE security agents.

The results of the study show that veracity testing methods, like the CCE method developed by the researchers, are significantly more effective at detecting deceptive passengers. Traditional behavior-based screening methods only detected about 5% of deceptive passengers in this study, but CCE, a method of veracity testing, detected 66% of deceptive passengers.

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