The researchers carried out three studies involving 660 participants and concluded “Our reliance on smartphones and other devices will likely only continue to rise. It’s important to understand how smartphones affect and relate to human psychology before these technologies are so fully ingrained that it’s hard to recall what life was like without them. We may already be at that point.”

As it happens, other researchers have been working on related issues. “Searching the Internet for information may make people feel smarter than they actually are”. So says a March 31, 2015 ScienceDaily article from American Psychological Association (APA), Internet searches create illusion of personal knowledge, research finds. In a range of experiments using an Internet Group and a Control Group, researchers were surprised to find that “ participants had an inflated sense of their own knowledge after searching the Internet even when they couldn’t find the information they were looking for.” As did the smartphones article, this article also points to a potential bigger threat, noting that “An inflated sense of personal knowledge also could be dangerous in the political realm or other areas involving high-stakes decisions…”In cases where decisions have big consequences, it could be important for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when they actually don’t.”

The “illusion of personal knowledge” is not a new finding. In an entertaining Oct 27, 2014 Pacific Standard article, We Are All Confident Idiots, David Dunning describes some amusing results from the “Lie Witness News” feature of late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! This involves sending a camera crew out into the streets to ask passers-by questions about fictitious events or people. Many would reply knowledgeably. David Dunning draws a parallel between this and his own research at Cornell University, where the research team ask survey respondents if they are familiar with certain technical concepts from physics, biology, politics, and geography. David notes that “In one study, roughly 90 percent claimed some knowledge of at least one of the nine fictitious concepts we asked them about. In fact, the more well versed respondents considered themselves in a general topic, the more familiarity they claimed with the meaningless terms associated with it in the survey.”

This illusion  of competence is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, dating back to a 1999 paper, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, published  in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David and his then graduate student Justin Kruger.

A Nov 4, 2014 Neurologica blog, Lessons from Dunning-Kruger, by Dr. Steven Novella gives a David Dunning quote, “An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.” Dr Novella says that this rings true to him as a veteran skeptic. He is president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society and also host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU). He suggests reading read the comments on the SGU’s Facebook page to quickly be subject to the full force of Dunning-Kruger.

Dr Novella also gives examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect, from his own medical experience as an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, noting that “medical education is a special case because self-assessment is a skill we specifically teach and assess. It is critically important for physicians to have a fairly clear understanding of their own knowledge and skills. We specifically try to give students an appreciation for what they do not know, and the seemingly bottomless pit of medical information is in constant display.”   He concludes that “The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just about dumb people not realizing how dumb they are. It is about basic human psychology and cognitive biases. Dunning-Kruger applies to everyone.”

So where does that leave us? We are all getting more and more benefit from mobile technology but is that making us lazier, less competent  and more self confident? Maybe we should take Dr Novella’s advice:

“The solution is critical thinking, applying a process of logic and empiricism, and humility – in other words, scientific skepticism.

In addition to the various aspects of critical thinking, self-assessment is a skill we can strive to specifically develop. But a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of humility. If you assume you know relatively less than you think you do, and that there is more knowledge than of what you are aware, you will usually be correct.”