DOI: 10.1177/20563051231195547 ISSN:

Search Fluency Mistaken for Understanding: Ease of Information Retrieval from the Internet Inflates Internal Knowledge Confidence

Kristy A. Hamilton, Li Qi
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Communication
  • Cultural Studies

Internet search engines boast material features (e.g., Google’s knowledge panels, Featured Snippets) that increase the speed with which users find answers to search queries—while reducing their effort—to create a seamless media experience. Yet, the ability to instantaneously retrieve answers through seamless digital search may come at a metacognitive cost. This experiment examines the effect of digital search fluency on internal (in the “brain”) knowledge confidence. In a question-answering task, participants report higher ratings of internal knowledge confidence accompanying immediate access to Featured Snippets than those with delayed or no access to Featured Snippets. The effects of immediate information access on knowledge confidence not only occur for specific topics for which relevant information has been retrieved but also for topics irrelevant to the retrieved information. When people have immediate access to explanations through features that enhance access to information, external retrieval fluency may serve as a heuristic for internal knowledge confidence. Search engines that contribute to the immediate retrieval of external information may inadvertently strain Internet users’ ability to distinguish between mind and machine as the source of their knowledge.

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