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In a digital world where information is at your fingertips, be prepared to hold on tight before it slips right through them. Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a “cognitive overload” that interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen.twitter-1084764_640

Worse yet, that overload can spill over and diminish performance in the real world.

“Most people don’t post original ideas any more. You just share what you read with your friends,” said Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “But they don’t realize that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do.”

Wang and colleagues in China conducted experiments showing that “retweeting” interfered with learning and memory, both online and off. The experiments are described in Issue 59 (2016) of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The experiments were conducted at Beijing University, with a group of Chinese college students as subjects. At computers in a laboratory setting, two groups were presented with a series of messages from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. After reading each message, members of one group had options either to repost or go on to the next message. The other group was given only the “next” option.

After finishing a series of messages, the students were given an online test on the content of those messages. Those in the repost group offered almost twice as many wrong answers and often demonstrated poor comprehension. What they did remember they often remembered poorly, Wang reported. “For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse,” she added.

The researchers theorized that reposters were suffering from “cognitive overload.” When there is a choice to share or not share, the decision itself consumes cognitive resources, Wang explained.

This led to a second experiment: After viewing a series of Weibo messages, the students were given an unrelated paper test on their comprehension of a New Scientist article. Again, participants in the no-feedback group outperformed the reposters. Subjects also completed a Workload Profile Index, in which they were asked to rate the cognitive demands of the message-viewing task. The results confirmed a higher cognitive drain for the repost group.

“[The sharing] leads to cognitive overload, and that interferes with the subsequent task,” Wang said. “In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse,” she suggested.

Noting that other research has shown people often pay more attention to elements of a web design such as “repost” or “like” than to the content, the researchers suggest that web interfaces should be designed to promote rather than interfere with cognitive processing. “Online design should be simple and task-relevant,” Wang concluded.

The research was supported by the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation.

Fourteen Cornell scholars (11 faculty members and one faculty member-graduate student team) received 2015 awards from the Jeffrey S. Lehman Fund for Scholarly Exchange with China. The fund provides grants to initiate research projects, sponsor research-related conferences or workshops, host visitors from China or support faculty travel to China to work on collaborative research projects.

Projects and winners are:

  • Integrating Eastern and Western Medicine to Address Iron Deficiency In Rural Chinese Women. Project director: Laura Pompano, doctoral candidate in the field of nutritional sciences, and Jere D. Haas, the Nancy Schlegel Meinig Professor of Maternal and Child Nutrition, Division of Nutritional Sciences;
  • Manufacturing Revolutions: The Socialist Development of a Chinese Auto-Industrial Base. Project director: Victor Seow, assistant professor, Department of History;
  • Chinese Medicine and Healing: Translating Practice. Project director: TJ Hinrichs, associate professor, Department of History;
  • China/Cornell Media Arts Exchange Program. Project director: J.P. Sniadecki, assistant professor, Department of Performing and Media Arts;
  • Constructing the Autobiographical Self in Cyberspace. Project director: Qi Wang, professor, Department of Human Development;
  • Inflation, String Theory, and Cosmic Strings. Project directors: David Chernoff, professor, Department of Astronomy, and Liam McAllister, professor, Department of Physics;
  • Conference and Publication on Feminist Jurisprudence in Shanghai. Project director: Cynthia Grant Bowman, the Dorothea S. Clarke Professor of Feminist Jurisprudence, Law School;
  • Ricci Flow on 4manifolds and Applications. Project director: Xiaodong Cao, associate professor, Department of Mathematics;
  • Beijing Film and Digital Media Initiative. Project directors: Tim Murray, director, Society for the Humanities, and Amy Villarejo, chair, Department of Performing and Media Arts;
  • Creating China? Transnational Public Intellectuals and the Making of Contemporary Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. Project director: Allen Carlson, associate professor, Department of Government.

For more information, contact the East Asia Program in the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at cueap@cornell.edu.