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Social media, we all know, can make you unproductive. If you’re indiscreet or offensive, it can complicate your relationships. But can it also make you downright dumb?
That’s what a new study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface suggests. How can spending more time on Facebook or Twitter end up making us stupider?
It’s not just that all those hours clicking crops in Farmville and the like simply represnts time that could be spent, say, reading a book and actually learning something. The greater problem seems to be the human tendency to copy others.
Can You Copycat Your Way to Intelligence?
To come to this conclusion, the scientists created five artificial social networks made up of volunteers. Some connected their members in a tight net, where everyone was in contact with everyone else. Others kept the participants more separate. They then tasked the participants with answering a tricky set of brainteasers. Were those who were more socially connected more or less likely to figure out the right answers?
In the short term, more connections yielded more right answers, but not because members were learning. Nope, they were just stealing.
“The researchers found that in well connected networks volunteers…got better at giving the right answer the more times they were asked and the more opportunities they had to steal their neighbours’ answers,” Phys.org reports. “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.”
But did copying smarter social connections improve participants’ ability to figure out the answers independently? In short, no. Given a fresh question, the copycats performed no better than when they first joined the social network.
The Good News–and the Bad
The results offer encouragement for both fans and critics of social networks. If you look at things on the group level, there is reason for cheer. “Being able to copy from other people in vast networks means analytical responses rapidly spread, fulfilling their promise of improved decision-making for well-connected people,” says Phys.org.
But for individuals, the implications are less positive. Social networking probably isn’t making you smarter. In fact, it could be making you dumber by supplying answers and insights without requiring any actual thinking, so that your analytic powers begin to waste away like an unused muscle.
Or as the research team puts it: “On the other hand, the bias may very well decrease the frequency of analytical reasoning by making it easy and commonplace for people to reach analytical response without engaging analytical processing.” In the long-term, they warn, “increased connectivity may eventually make us stupid by making us smarter first.”
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