Is social networking making us stupid

Written by Press Trust of India | London | Updated: Feb 10 2014, 00:37am hrs
Social networkingSpeed, volume and ease with which information is shared through social networking sites may be making it more difficult for us to think analytically. Reuters
Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook may be making us stupider by making it hard for people to think for themselves, a new study suggests.

Speed, volume and ease with which information is shared through social networking sites may be making it more difficult for us to think analytically, researchers say.

Scientists including Dr Iyad Rahwan, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, investigated if networks help us imitate analytical thought processes from our peers.

To carry out their experiment they tested university students with a series of brain-straining questions.

As many as 100 volunteers were separated into 5 social networks each with 20 individuals. Connections between the people in the networks were assigned randomly by a computer to fit 5 different network patterns.

At one extreme all the people in the network were connected directly to all the others, and at the other extreme there were no connections at all.

To test how these networks helped the people in them to learn, the scientists quizzed the volunteers with a "cognitive reflection test", a series of questions which rely on analytical reasoning to overcome incorrect intuition.

To see if the social networks helped the people in them to improve their answers the volunteers were asked each of the questions 5 times.

The first time the volunteers had to figure it out on their own, the next 5 times they were allowed to copy the answer from their neighbours in the network.

The researchers found that in well connected networks volunteers copy-cats got better at giving the right answer the more times they were asked and the more opportunities they had to steal their neighbours' answers.

This result showed that when the students had lots of connections to peers they could recognise where they had given a wrong answer and swap it for the right one, proving to the scientists that well-connected networks can help us get the right answer because we can copy from our peers.

The scientists compared how well the volunteers faired in the three consecutive questions to see if the volunteers were actually getting better at figuring out the problems themselves or just at copying the right answers.

They found that there was no improvement from one question to the next; even when individuals had realised in the first round of questions that finding the solutions required deeper thought, in the next question they were back at square one.

The team said the results show that whilst social networks helped the volunteers choose better answers they didn't prime them to answer more logically themselves, showing that "social learning does not seem to help individuals bypass their bias in favour of intuition but rather help society as a whole thrive despite this bias."

The study was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.