If Google is making users stupid, then social networks like Facebook may be making people seem smart without actually being so.

That's the conclusion of a new study, published on Feb. 4 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The researchers found that people often learn the right answers through copying them via a social network, but they don't pick up the analytical process needed to arrive at those answers.

"When we learn by observing what others do, we recognize and adopt good information and behaviors, but that does not make us any more likely to be able to arrive at the same kind of information or behavior independently," said study co-author Iyad Rahwan, a computing and information sciences researcher at the Masdar Institute in the United Arab Emirates. [10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]

Copying machines

The Internet's effect on human learning has been hotly debated. Past research has shown that the tendency to "Google" for information has made people less smart, or at least less able to concentrate and retain information. But the effect of social networks on learning was less well understood.

Though it gets a bad rap, simply copying what other people say can be much more efficient than thoughtful learning. This social learning may have helped humans in the evolutionary past, by allowing them quickly to adopt new technologies and strategies. For instance, blindly copying every facet of a bow and arrow is a quick and easy way to hunt more animals. By contrast, figuring out whether the paint color, dimensions, or material were critical to the bow's function would take a lot more trouble, Rahwan said.

But being a copycat has its downsides, because humans often lean on simple social imitation when they could learn deeper lessons themselves using slow, reflective thinking. 

Right answers

To see how social networks affected learning, Rahwan and colleagues asked people to answer a series of three questions that have an intuitive — but wrong — answer. One typical question would be: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?"

Snap thinking would lead people to say the bat costs $1.00 and the ball costs 10 cents, but that's wrong. If people do the (very simple) math, they quickly realize that the bat costs $1.05 and the ball costs 5 cents. 

All of the questions had different ways of solving them, but all required volunteers to tune out the intuitive answer and start thinking more deliberately about the problem.

Initially, participants were left to puzzle out these problems on their own. But in follow-up trials, they could see how other participants answered in past rounds, without knowing whether those answers were right.

Seeing how other people answered the same questions did make people respond correctly to that particular question. But the results did not extend to different questions. The results suggest that people were simply copying the answers, but not the slow thinking process, needed to arrive at the answer.

Social network influence

The findings suggest that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter can be incredibly powerful means of disseminating good ideas.

"It amplifies our opportunities for social learning," Rahwan said. Provided that people seek out diverse and reliable sources of information, that's a good thing, he said.

"The problem is that this process makes us look smarter, without actually making us smarter," Rahwan said. "So society as a whole appears more thoughtful, without the individuals actually becoming more thoughtful."

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