Technology and Memory: The negative effects of digital technology on memory #1 (and key studies)

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, IB Psychology HL Extensions, Key Studies

Could relying on our laptops too much be damaging our memory? This post explores this issue. This is relevant for HL students and the Cognitive Extension for IB Psych, Paper One.

The following has been adapted from our exam revision book: IB Psychology: A Revision Guide (available here). This is relevant for the working memory model and also for the HL extension: the (negative) effects of technology on cognitive processes and the reliability of cognitive processes. In this post we look at the negative effects of computer games and other technology on the reliability of working memory and its capacity.

Technology’s Negative Effects on Memory

The old saying “use it or lose it” applies to the brain and it might be that modern technology is not encouraging us to use our brains in positive ways, so our thinking skills are deteriorating. For example, we used to have to try to remember information if we wanted to access it later. Now we can rely on our phones to store information and we have everything we need to know if we just “google it.” This could be negatively affecting our memory. This can be shown in Sparrow et al.’s study on the effects of the internet and memory.

Key Study #1: Google and Memory (Sparrow et al. 2001)

The aim of this experiment was to see if knowing that we would have access to saved information later (like we do with the internet) would affect semantic memory (memory of facts and information). They asked participants to type out a series of trivia (random facts). One group were told the information would be saved and they could access it later. The other group were told that it wouldn’t be saved. Afterwards they did a test and the results showed that if participants thought they had access to the information, they scored worse on a test of the facts they wrote down.

Sparrow et al.’s simple study shows that when we do not need to rely on our own memories to store information because we know the information will be stored elsewhere then this will reduce our memory of that information.


In the old days we had to remember phone numbers. I still remember my friend’s from 20 years ago. Can you remember any of your friends numbers? (Photo by joenibraw on

Digital Note Taking and Memory

How we try to learn things in the first place might also be having an effect on our memory. Students are using laptops in classes more than ever and it might be


Do the studies in this post make you think differently about how you take notes?     (Photo by on

detrimental. Because we can type fast without thinking, the processing of information is quite shallow and it doesn’t transfer to our long-term memory. Taking notes by hand forces us to think about our notes and the information and this may be better for our memory in the long-run.

Key Study #2: Handwriting vs Typing (Mueller and Oppenheimer, (2014)

In this experiment, 67 students from Princeton University participated and were asked to take notes on a lecture. The students were told to take notes how they normally would (typing on a laptop or by hand). Afterwards they were given a test on the content of the lecture. The results showed that there wasn’t much difference in remembering facts from the lectures. However, there was a significant difference in test scores based on conceptual understanding (comprehending the meaning and significance of the facts). This suggests that using technology to take notes might affect our ability to remember and understand important ideas about what we’re learning.

Exam Tips:

  • You may be asked specifically about positive effects or negative effects in an essay question. If the question is general and just asks to discuss the effects, you can write about positive and negative effects.
  • Sparrow et al.’s study could also be used in support of the multi-store model – participants are not rehearsing the information if they think it’s being saved so the memory is not transferring from the STM to the LTM.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • Are these effects actually negative? Could there be positives to take from this? For example, might it be that more of our cognitive capacity and energy is being freed up for other tasks since we don’t have to worry about remembering?
  • Can you think of any limitations of these studies? For example, could the study on Princeton University students be critiqued based on its population validity?
  • These studies are also measuring memory in the short-term. How might that be a limitation?
  • Could there be positive effects of the use of technology on cognitive processes? (Read more here…)


From the above studies we can see that relying on digital technology to process and store information could have a negative effect on how well we retain that information.

  • Sparrow, B., J. Liu, and D. M. Wegner. “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.” Science 333.6043 (2011): 776-78.
  • Oppenheimer, Daniel M., and Pam A. Mueller. “The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: Longhand and Laptop Note-Taking.” Psychological science. Vol 25, Issue 6, 2014