Susan Greenfield Ph.D.

Mind Change

iPhone, Therefore I Am

New research shows that we outsource thinking to our smartphones.

Posted Apr 02, 2015

“I’ll just Google it.” How many times has this been the answer to a simple question that you are stumped by? Having technology at our fingertips means we no longer need to use our brain to remember facts, dates, numbers, names, places- or any answer to a simple question. And why would we want to use our energy-guzzling brains when something else can do it for us? In fact, thinking is so taxing to humans, that researchers have coined us “cognitive misers”: typically, we are stingy when it comes to spending effort on thinking.1 And with Google now at our fingertips, 24-hours a day, the future for lazy thinking has never been brighter.

Cognition theories offer two types of mental processing: (1) fast, intuitive thinking that requires little effort or thorough analysis compared to (2) slower, analytical, resource-intensive reflection. Those who are prone to Type 1 thinking are more prone to cognitive miserliness then those who utilize Type 2 thinking.1 Research has shown that individuals who are cognitive misers in their disposition and ability are more likely to let their smartphones do the work for them. In a series of three studies on US workers and Canadian college students, cognitive miserliness was measured with questions such as these:2

In a study 1000 people were tested. Among the participants there were 3 who live in a condo and 997 who live in a farmhouse. Kurt is a randomly chosen participant of this study. Kurt works on Wall Street and is single. He works long hours and wears Armani suits to work. He likes wearing sunglasses.

What is most likely?

Kurt lives in a condo
Kurt lives in a farmhouse

In questions such as these, an individual who is prone to high levels of cognitive miserliness will need to overcome their propensity to answer quickly and intuitively to select A, and use their analytical, resource-intensive thought process to arrive at the correct answer B.

Researchers found that in addition to high smartphone use being linked with reluctance to spend energy on thinking, for those without smartphones, this miserliness was also linked with search engine use on computers.1 The authors propose that those who use their smartphones or computers to Google simple questions either actually know the answer, or could easily learn it, but are unwilling to invest the cognitive energy to solve the problem by simply thinking about it.

The authors also found that specifically, using smartphones to search the Internet, but not for social media or entertainment, were linked to cognitive miserliness, validating further the concept of the smartphone as the extended brain. The authors note that no differences were found between smartphone users and non-users in cognition overall, suggesting that cognitive miserliness leads to using a smartphone as the extended mind, rather than smartphone use causing cognitive miserliness. However, much more research determining what causes what is needed.

This research extends the “Google effect”.3 In a series of experiments, researchers found that participants strongly linked knowledge, and particularly, not knowing the answer to a question with computers and search engines. Follow-up studies revealed that people do not necessarily remember where to find certain information when they can remember what it was; conversely, they tend to remember where to find information when they can’t remember the information itself. They are also poorer at learning information if they know they can access the answer later—as is the case with search engines.

What are the implications of outsourcing our brains to technology? You could argue that by unclogging our neuronal networks of facts and other answers to simple questions, we now have more time and space to focus on higher forms of intellectual pursuits. In fact, if individuals who are more likely to be lazy in their thinking style are outsourcing the job to technology, they are surely upgrading their soft tissue for a better model—Google is never impaired or decayed by bias, time, errors, or alcohol consumption.

Unfortunately, our brains adhere to a ‘use it or lose it’ policy. Without regular practice of storing and retrieving facts, our ability to do so risks being diminished. And the types of simple information that can be outsourced to search engines are essential elements of deeper cognition—the process of joining up the dots.  In other words, if we use Google to supply the dots in the first place, then our ability to make new connections—to convert information to knowledge—may also be in jeopardy.

Furthermore, our thoughts are a quintessential element of our identity. How does having an “external mind”1 in the form of a smartphone, impact on self-perception? If our smartphones are an extension of our body, then what effect does that have on us when we misplace it, or our wifi signal drops? What level of faith, or conversely, doubt, do we place in the information we source from technology, if we view it as adjunct to our own thoughts? As technology becomes more biologically integrated, and our smartphones shift from our pockets into our bodies, the view of technology as an extension of our minds will only strengthen.

One thing is certain—our thinking has officially “transcended skull and skin."1


1. Barr, N., Pennycook, G., Stolz, J. A., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 473-480.
2. De Neys, W., & Glumicic, T. (2008). Conflict monitoring in dual process theories of thinking. Cognition, 106, 1284-1299.
3. Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D.M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776–778. doi:10.1126/science.1207745

About the Author

Susan Greenfield, Ph.D., is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords.

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