Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

This Is Your Brain on the Internet (Maybe)


Headlines like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” or “Is the Internet Making Us Dumber?” quite clearly show that people are concerned about what the Internet is doing to our cognition. Some have speculated that the Internet has become a kind of external hard drive for our brains, eliminating our need to really learn or process information. Others point to the obvious advantages of having more information available to more people than at any other time in history. As our lives become increasingly wired, we are now stepping back to see just how deep down the connections go.

In the late 1980s, communication researchers began shifting to a view of human communication that was more cognitively based. Out of this shift came a few now very successful theories that sought to describe how we seek and process information. One of the most widely applicable theories to come out of this “cognitive revolution,” developed by researchers Alice Eagly and Shelly Chaiken, was dubbed the “Heuristic Systematic Model” (or HSM). Like the highly popularized theory of “System 1” and “System 2” thinking advanced by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the HSM separates our information processing strategies into two distinct modes. Our heuristic thinking is characterized as a rough and ready approximator relying on basic cues. Being that this style of thought is cognitively less costly, it is our default, applying stereotypes, models, and gut-reactions to the processing of information. Conversely, our systematic thinking is an in-depth look at the evidence where we internalize information and connect it to other ideas. The organizing concept of the HSM is that people are cognitive misers. It takes real mental effort to process information deeply, and as such we rarely do so, or only do so when properly motivated.

The trigger to transition between styles in this dual-process cognition is partially dependent on the sufficiency principle. Generally, when making a decision, we weigh how much we know against how much we need to know to make a confident judgment about a topic. If this gap between what we know and what we need to know is small, heuristic-style thinking is more likely. Conversely, if there is a large gap, we need to expend more mental resources to close it, thus encouraging systematic thinking. This Scrooge-like mental calculus determines how much we process the information we are inundated with everyday. And we readily recognize this game of cognitive economy, especially when browsing the web. For example, going through a stuffed RSS feed can be a fairly disengaged experience, with only the topics that are interesting, confusing, or contentious garnering real attention. This “surf or stay” mentality is easily grafted onto the HSM.


Where I think many of the “the Internet is making us stupid” claims get it wrong is that these detractions also apply to other mediums. The Internet is young and revolutionary, to be sure, but the brains we explore it with are the same that peruse the sports section or catch up on the Colbert Report. It should stand to reason that our theories of information processing, like the HSM, should then apply to this new medium. Rather than call a change in processing strategies a “dumbing down” of the populous, we should be just as willing to first understand without judgment how we think on the Internet as we do with newspapers and television.

So what is the Internet doing to our thinking? It is hard to say. Current research has a hard time keeping up with the break-neck pace of online culture, and only the more conventional mediums like television and newspapers have been evaluated in any rigorous sense. Applying successful models of human information processing to the Internet could be a real boon for science. Are there certain aspects of websites that encourage critical thinking? How do people determine if something is credible on the Internet? Could we craft websites with an understanding of cognition to better promote in-depth thought? These are questions that are hard to answer in specific ways without a general foundation of research, which is lacking. Ever the intrepid graduate student, I believe this deficiency needs remedying.


Faced with an open chasm separating ignorance from less ignorance, I have been trying to apply the HSM to the Internet. Of course I would like to pare down this vague goal, perhaps looking at how people evaluate scientific information on the web, but with a grand canyon of research before me, I had to start general. I reasoned that if people are to apply a certain style of thought to information, the information must first go through the requisite credibility checks. An accuracy motivation, one of three motivations outlined in the HSM (the others being defense and impression management), would then be a good place to begin. Everyone has had the experience of trying to find good information on the Internet, and examining the cognitive pursuit of this goal could inform how people glean information from it. If I could instill an accuracy motivation in participants and then ask them what factors of websites indicate credible information, I would be one step closer to learning how these factors modulate thinking styles.

I should state up front that the following discussion is the result of a small pilot study that I completed during my graduate work. What I have made of the results is largely speculative, but then again, given the state of the literature, I have to be.

After delving into the communication literature on what factors indicate credibility (there have been some studies looking at this in an online context), I crafted a questionnaire. It first asked participants to imagine that they needed to find information on the Internet about a scientific topic and then asked what website characteristics would steer them towards a credible site. Based on the results, I found a grouping of five factors that informed the credibility of a website:

1. Heuristics: This factor is comprised of the appearance of a “like button,” attractive graphics, and professional design. Because these are superficial characteristics of a website and are linked to the presence of accurate information, it was decided that this factor measures a heuristic judgment.

2. Need for Outside Verification: This factor is comprised of the appearance of scientific references and links to other websites. The items in this factor were interpreted to represent a value in outside verification for accurate information. For example, a website that has scientific references to back up the information on that website has externally validated information. Similarly, a website that has links to other websites that a person recognizes may indicate that the website is as credible as the other websites that the person knows or trusts.

3. Authority: This factor is comprised of valuing an organization’s website over an individual’s (e.g. NASA versus a lone person) and valuing an authority-run website. This factor is similar to the Heuristic factor, as an appeal to authority is a cognitive heuristic, but is separate because authority is not a superficial characteristic like attractive graphics is, for example. This factor represents a value in the authority of the website for an indication of accurate information.

4. Skeptics: This factor is comprised of the appearance of advertisements, impressive author credentials, and available author contact information. This factor is interpreted as a skeptical mindset because it represents respondents who think advertisements on a website make the website less credible, who do not trust high author credentials, and who value author contact information. This factor rejects some superficial characteristics of credibility and values the ability to contact the author of the information on a website directly.

5. Domain: This factor is only comprised of a website’s domain (.gov or .edu versus .com). Interestingly, this item does not fit into any other superficial characteristics. This may indicate that an official domain is the bar to pass when searching for a credible website.

These factors capture much of what I think people look for in assessing the credibility of a website. But how does this inform how we think within digital confines? The next step would be to vary these factors experimentally. Perhaps the more authoritative the website, the more heuristically people will process the information found there. Maybe a website with a “.com” domain triggers more systematic processing to verify the information (given a strong motivation). But the work on this still needs to be done.

When the data is laid bare, finding the triggers of heuristic and systematic thinking could inform science communication and scientific literacy. If we know what cues give that superficial gleam of accuracy, we can better inform the public on how to sort the sites that only look good from the ones that actually are good and encourage more systematic processing. Science educators could craft websites that hit all the right switches, separating the science wheat from the pseudoscience chaff. Furthermore, it could be the case that the uniqueness of the Internet is actually affecting the way we think. Perhaps persistent “surfing” has fundamentally changed the size of our perceived information sufficiency gap; heuristics may rule the day. Of course, without the necessary cognitive resources or motivations, it is hard to get us to think critically about anything. In this way, promoting scientific literacy and effective science communication is still critically important.

Research into how we process information on the Internet is in its infancy, simultaneously announcing a grand ignorance and inspiring novel ideas. The meticulous plod of science in the Internet age is reminiscent of the tortoise and the hare, yet there seems to be no better way to win the race than to look at digital culture with our emerging tools which investigate cognition. I’d speculate more about how the Internet has changed our information processing strategies, but I have 500+ RSS items to get through…

Images:Schematic by author, Internet Map by Opte Project

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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