One of the most extraordinary features of the Internet is that it contains an enormous amount of information. If we want to learn something or have a question, we just have to search and in a matter of seconds we will have access to scientific studies, press articles or the experiences of millions of people on the subject that concerns us.
At first glance, it is wonderful. However, access to this practically unlimited pool of information can have a not insignificant drawback: Confusing the information we have sought with our knowledge, according to researchers from the University of Texas.
Sharing an article makes us feel more informed, even if it isn’t
In a first study, researchers gave participants the opportunity to read online news stories that previous participants had shared with them, as well as to share those articles with future participants. All of them were free to share the news as many times as they wanted, as well as to read what they wanted from the article or even not read it.
Then they had to indicate their level of subjective knowledge about the topics of the articles to which they had been exposed. Next, the researchers gave them a short test to prove their factual knowledge.
As expected, those who read the articles felt more informed and showed that they knew more about the subject. Interestingly, those who also shared the articles indicated that they knew more than those who did not. However, reality was a bit different from their perception because the tests showed that their knowledge wasn’t greater.
In a second study, researchers found that people don’t share articles because they know the subject, rather it is the act of sharing that makes them believe they know more about the subject.
Finally, these researchers wondered if this biased perception would influence people’s decisions and behaviors. To test this, they asked one group to read an article about investing and share it on their Facebook page and to another group they asked not to share it.
The results showed that those who shared the article took a significantly higher risk when they had to plan their investments, compared to those who did not share the information on their social networks.
Overall, these studies suggest that the mere act of sharing information may not only change our perception of our level of knowledge, even if we haven’t even read the information, but may also influence our decisions and behavior, possibly by instilling false confidence in us, making us feel more knowledgeable about a particular topic.
That subjective bias could be particularly problematic when we read clickbait headlines that are written just to get attention and don’t accurately reflect the content of an article. In those cases, not reading the information until the end can feed misconceptions that end up pushing us in the wrong direction.
What is the difference between information and knowledge?
With the Internet, we confuse information with knowledge. But they are not the same. We can equate the information with the score of a musical theme. However, knowledge includes experience, intuition, and tricks learned through practice.
The consumption of information is just that: consumption. Of all the information we read every day, only a small amount becomes part of our knowledge. When we are running from one commitment to another, immersed in the day to day, we do not usually stop to analyze each piece of information. We consume it quite automatically, so it eventually tends to disappear. We forgot it.
Instead, knowledge implies a learning process through which we incorporate that information into our mental schemes and manage to find some application for it. While the consumption of information is an eminently passive process, the formation of knowledge is a more active process that requires effort. It involves reflecting on what has been read or applying it. Only then can we internalize the information.
Obviously, information is important and is the precursor to knowledge, but without knowledge we won’t be able to play the musical score. Knowledge is, in a certain way, information encoded in actions. It is what we have incorporated and made our own.
Mistaking information for knowledge can create a false sense of confidence, leading us to believe that we understand complex topics when we have only scratched the surface, or think that we have all the necessary skills to undertake a project.
In fact, it is not the first study to reveal that we have difficulty distinguishing between information and knowledge on the Internet. A year earlier, those same researchers found that using Google to answer questions made people more confident in their memory and knowledge, making them feel more capable. However, the tests showed that these participants did not improve their performance or level of real knowledge.
These studies are a wake-up call as they suggest that access to information on the Internet and the simple act of sharing it can generate unwarranted confidence in our knowledge, memory and abilities that lead us to make biased decisions that we may later regret.
Take time to read what really interests us. Until the end. And then reflect on what we have read because, if we do not, it is likely that time has been wasted and that information falls on deaf ears, without going to enrich our baggage of knowledge.
Ward, A. F. et. Al. (2022) I share, therefore I know? Sharing online content – even without reading it – inflates subjective knowledge. Journal of Consumer Psychology; 10.1002.
Ward, A. F. et. Al. (2022) People mistake the internet’s knowledge for their own. PNAS; 118 (43) e2105061118.