Saturday, March 17, 2012

Is Google and social media making us stupid, less creative and unhappy?

Is Facebook creating a generation of unhappy alcoholics who can´t recall where they were yesterday? Mmm... maybe.

Lately, I´ve been reading a few articles that are scarily connected, and the pattern I see when combining them isn´t pretty. Google seems to be the beginning of the end of creativity.

According to research conducted by Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor of psychology at Colombia University, presented in Time magazine, the Internet age has changed us in three ways.

1. When we get a question, we don´t think of the question itself, but about where we can find Internet to figure it out.
2. When we believe we will find information later on, we don´t bother about saving it in our memory bank.
3. We remember not the information in itself, but how to find it again.

This can seem harmless but in this research there is a story of a major culture shift. These new behaviours, born from a technological innovation, will lead to new ways of interacting, choosing and living. Since our daily habits step by step change the brain, the flow of hormones, and our emotions, the habit of relying on Google for all things will in the long run influence our relationships, our sales processes and our wallets. Let me tell you how.

When we no longer have to remember things, make an effort to memorize facts, happenings or people, we will turn into empty shells. We will lose our ability to think critically, put things in perspective, see things in a context or draw upon past experiences to understand today. Our lateral thinking ability will disappear since we no longer keep a bank of data in our brain that can be surprisingly connected, and our intuition will be weaker. “Gut feel” – according to thinkers like Daniel Kahneman – is nothing but our brains quickly analysing something in the light of what it already knows – so the adequacy of the conclusion will depend on how many factors that are taken into consideration, this automatic judgement will be flawed. The more you know, the wiser your intuition will be. The less you know, the more it will be swayed by irrelevant facts. 

It´s like the fear of information overload was completely misleading. Instead, we should be scared of the zero information society, where we simply avoid the overload by having nothing at all in our brains, but everything stored on servers.

Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at University of Virginia, says “factual knowledge must precede skills”. He means you need to recruit a supply of stored knowledge in order to situate and evaluate new information. You can´t Google context.” No, Google might be able to find similar data for us when we search for a topic, but it can´t find connections between historical events, something your grandma once taught you and a phrase from a poem you once memorised and that can shed light on an issue today. Google can´t really think in the creative way a human can. It can´t interpret culture in the form of art, use sense of humour and see patterns. Neither can it feel, or analyse what others are feeling. It can´t measure value of a piece of facts, to see what blog post is crap, created to bring in money on Adsense, and which is genuinely interesting. In the long run, this development – or decrease in ability to remember things - will affect our ability to concentrate and wait for rewards. We will become impatient and restless.

Research on how social media is ruining our brains (infographic published late 2011) shows that the average attention span at present is just 5 seconds long, while it ten years ago was 12 minutes. The average office worker checks his email inbox 30-40 times an hour. The effect of this is that 25% forget the names or details of close friends and relatives, and 7% forget their own birthday from time to time.

If you can´t remember, you become impatient
Since the brain is constantly changing, due to the laws of neuroplasticity, every new way of using it – or not using it – will affect how we behave, feel think and react. Studies have found a connection between willpower and working memory. The more you train your brain to remember things, the stronger you will be in resisting temptations.You will be able to wait for gratification, instead of demanding everything to be served in an instant.

Psychologist Warren Bickel of Virginia Tech put people through training exercises that improved their memory and found they also developed longer time horizons, meaning they valued the future more.

Whether we have that important willpower – the strength to wait, to do hard work now to get results later – is crucial for life in general. I read on Kevin Roberts blog about a 32 year study conducted by Duke University in New Zealand that has revealed that willpower is central to living a healthy and successful life. The research tracked 1,000 children from birth and found that those who displayed greater willpower as children were more likely to grow into happy, well adjusted and healthy adults. Those less able to control their urges were less likely to do well academically, have fewer savings, be overweight and have issues with drugs or alcohol. They were also four times more likely to have a criminal record than those with strong willpower.

This research is just one of the studies referenced in the new book Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength by American social psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney.

So, the conclusion is that social media and Internet rapidly change the way we think, hence change the way we make decision, hence changing our level of happiness. Are we seeing a future with restless souls, running around chasing the next big thing instead of saving up for the years to come? Will we all be living in the now – as in having NO idea on what happened last week or what our mums name is? Are we looking at a next generation of fat criminals and drug addicts? Is Twitter to blaim?

I guess we just need to wait and see. But I suggest doing some kind of puzzles today, or learning Spanish glossary, or read a book and then tell a friend what you remember... It might determine whether you end up as a homeless bum on the street or a happy healthy granny.


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