Adaptive Learning and Transactive Memory: How Search Engines are Changing Human Behaviour and Biology

Search and the web are changing the way we thinkTechnology probably started to change us the moment we stooped down to pick up a rock and weigh it up for throwing. As humans we have the ability to use technology to short-circuit biology and evolution, augment our strengths and lessen our weaknesses and the way we use the web and search is no exception.

Much is being made, right this moment, of a recently published study regarding the effect search engines are having on the way we use our brain to store our memories. Although the study implies that by relying on search engines to find things for us we are giving up the ability to remember facts which matter it is wrong in its assumption. We live in a world which can be eminently hostile. A sudden drop from a moderate height or a drop in temperature by a few degrees can kill us. The recent heat wave hitting America and its fatal effects makes the argument about our vulnerability to our environment.  Having neither very sharp teeth nor claws and with muscles which can lose up to 50% of their power over a 24-hour period of inactivity we are ill-suited for fighting anything bigger than a large house cat, and even then we might be challenged.

Yet, we have managed to climb to the top of the food chain becoming the apex predator on a planet whose environment challenges us, almost, at every step and we have done so because we rely so heavily on technology. It should come, then, as no surprise that search engines, the starting point of the day for a large percentage of this planet’s population, should have such an impact on our behaviour.

SEOs Know that Search Engines Change Personal Behaviour

Search engine optimisers have known all along that human behaviour is in adaptive mode when it comes to search and the web. Anecdotal examples show that many of us rely on Google’s ability to auto-correct words and suggest the correct spelling and, therefore use the search engine not only to find items we are not 100% sure how they are spelled, but also to often correct our own spelling.

When Google Instant was implemented, for example, it was a piece of programming designed to suggest possible search queries based on anonymously accrued search results. The intention, from Google, was to help save seconds off the typing of search queries. The search algorithm did not change and the way websites were being indexed did not change. Yet, this relatively simple change, presented SEOs with a major challenge.

Websites which were either not popular enough or not optimised enough in relation to specific search terms saw their traffic dip sharply as the traditional search pattern of Google users who “rarely get past Page three of the search results” changed to Google users who now simply click on what Google Instant suggests.

Adaptive Learning Drives the Web

As web users we are constantly locked into adaptive learning behaviour. The web is changing at such a fast pace and functionality and design develop in a complex feedback cycle where we take the technology developers create (and websites use) and through its use create a demand for the next wave of developments.

Adaptive learning not only makes us enthusiastic early adopters of everything the web has to offer but it allows us to seek innovative ways to use it which will offer us some kind of gain. Sometimes the gain is material as in money, commerce, or even information, and at other times it’s a gain in efficiency, like the time saving implementation of Google Instant. Either way adaptive learning behaviour is always ‘On’ when we work online and it often guides many of our decisions.

Transactive memory is a mind-trick that’s always been on, no matter where we are in terms of evolution. Basically, the brain remembers where to get information it needs (and how) rather than bothering to remember all the information. In pre-historic societies there were probably ‘elders’ we would go to when we needed to find out something specific about a hunting area or a type of game. In the more modern world we created ‘experts’ as a category to source data from with a higher trust factor. Google’s ability to search the web and the web’s capacity for storing information is the latest evolutionary step in this cycle.

The study revealed that when it comes to employing transactive memory we have come to rely on the web and search as a means of finding out what we want without having to remember it. As a potential weakness this is important. It means that the moment my computer is unplugged my wealth of knowledge which I have come to automatically rely upon in my decision making and, even, when I last baked a birthday cake for my partner, is suddenly that much poorer (I actually feel a lot more stupid without access to the web).

There is a flip side to this however which is brighter. By avoiding filling our heads with clutter we able to suddenly focus on the big picture. Suddenly we become strategists, able to plan in a bigger scale, think in a wider view and dipping into detailed information selectively, as the need arises, in order to better evaluate our decision planning.

In short, using technology as an adjunct to memory is how we short-circuit biology (and evolution) and that’s when things get really interesting. It is no accident that we live in a time of rapid technological development led by information processing. Incidentally, this makes the use of search on the web and the ability of search engines like Google to unearth the information we need, all the more crucial. It is not even inconceivable that, at some not too distant future, websites will be required to be search compliant like email marketing has to be spam compliant today.

It is this collision between the technical and the human which creates the crucible out of which so many new possibilities arise and so much excitement is generated, The web, clearly, is not just driving eCommerce and information, it is also shaping the evolution of human intellect and that is something that should really get the attention of each of us.