Cognitive Offloading: The Memory Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Technology to Store Limitless In...
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Cognitive Offloading: The Memory Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Technology to Store Limitless Information
Anyone who has ever made a grocery list, taken class notes, or used a
calendar to keep track of their daily schedule has engaged in cognitive
offloading: the process of externally recording thoughts and memories to
reduce cognitive demand. Although it may seem intuitive, cognitive offloading
is perhaps one of the most vital techniques employed in human memory.
As frequent learners of massive amounts of information, students may be the
biggest offloaders. During lectures, students often take notes like a court
stenographer, careful to capture every piece of information being presented.
The fallibility of human memory is well established (see Schacter, 1999) and
offloading can be useful in maximizing the storage of information by allowing a
greater amount of information to remain accessible. Additionally, offloading can
be a useful tool to maximize memory utility by reducing the extent to which we
have to attend to offloaded information allowing learners to focus on other to-
be-remembered information (Dror & Harnad, 2008; Risko & Dunn, 2015; Risko
& Gilbert, 2016).
Furthermore, previous work has demonstrated that offloading information
facilitates memory for other information by reducing the extent to which the
offloaded information interferes with target information. For example, Henkel
(2014) led a guided museum tour and had participants take pictures of some
objects but only observe others. On a later memory test, participants better
remembered objects that they observed compared to objects they
photographed (offloaded). Similarly, Storm and Stone (2014) had participants
study lists of words stored in files on a flash drive. Participants then saved
some of the files to their computer (offloaded) and closed other files without
saving. Participants better remembered information from a file if they had
saved a previous file (offloaded) than if they had not saved that previous file.
Thus, if participants expect to have later access to saved information,
offloading obviates the need to encode offloaded information and allows
participants to focus attention on and better remember not-offloaded
Although recent technology has made offloading easy and people have
become symbiotic with their phones and other devices, there are some
drawbacks to offloading. For example, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner (2011) had
participants study trivia questions and led them to believe that the studied
information would be saved (offloaded) or would not be stored for later access
(not offloaded). Participants who thought they would have access to the stored
information later demonstrated worse memory for the trivia questions than
participants who did not rely on technology to store the information. Thus,
offloading can result in poorer memory outcomes if offloaded information
cannot be retrieved later.
Moreover, while offloading can be useful in many situations by reducing the
cognitive cost of remembering less important information, it may still be of
functional benefit to remember certain information. For example, as evidenced
by Sparrow and colleagues (2011), offloading is only a useful tool if the
medium with which information is offloaded is reliable and accessible. If you
are a forgetful person and often lose your notepad or you have an unorganized
desktop and are unable to locate class notes, the information you offloaded
becomes less accessible and is unlikely to be retrieved when needed.
Additionally, class exams usually do not allow access to technology, notes, or
your textbook during the test period, preventing offloading as a memory or
Although offloading can increase the amount of information that is accessible,
only the information stored in memory is enhanced; memory for information
that is offloaded typically decreases (Risko & Gilbert, 2016). Thus, to maximize cognitive utility, it may be best to prioritize memory for important information
and offload less important information. For example, in Storm and Stone’s
(2014) study involving saving or closing information, they also examined
memory for information when participants were aware and unaware of whether
or not they would have later access to offloaded information. When participants
offloaded information by saving certain files before studying to-be-remembered
files, memory for the to-be-remembered files was enhanced. However, this was
not the case when the saving process was known to be unreliable as
participants are subsequently unable to more strategically allocate attention or
reduce interference from potentially offloaded information. Thus, strategically
offloading is only an effective memory strategy when the mechanism you use
to offload information is reliable.
Thanks to recent technology, offloading information is easier than ever. With
computers and smartphones connected to the internet and capable of
recording and retrieving essentially infinite quantities of information, offloading
has become even more efficient, leading to important changes in the way
humans think and remember (Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, & Fugelsang, 2015).
Although offloading serves many useful functions, we must be careful with how
much and what information we offload as there are situations in which we may
not have access to class notes (i.e., exams), our computers, or our phones
(i.e., dead battery) and need to remember information ourselves.
In sum, when to-be-remembered information is accessible, offloading can
facilitate the encoding and remembering of new information. As such, when
saved information is available indefinitely, there is less need to remember that
information, reducing the extent to which this offloaded information interferes
with the learning of new information. However, simply offloading information is
not sufficient to achieve the memory benefits if the offloading process is
unreliable. Additionally, it may be of functional benefit to remember important
information (i.e., a guardian’s phone number in case of an emergency) rather
than offloading everything. Thanks to modern technology providing essentially
limitless reliable storage and easy access to this information, the benefits of
offloading can be incurred with minimal cognitive costs, allowing massive
amounts of information to be accessible.
Barr, N., Pennycook, G., Stolz, J. A., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). The brain in
your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking.
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Dror, I. E., & Harnad, S. (2008). Offloading cognition onto cognitive technology.
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Risko, E. F., & Dunn, T. L. (2015). Storing information in-the-world:
Metacognition and cognitive offloading in a short-term memory task.
Consciousness and Cognition, 36, 61-74.
Risko, E. F., & Gilbert, S. (2016). Cognitive offloading: Emerging trends and
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Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and
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Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory:
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