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Cognition in Structured Electronic Environments

How do we assess whether a source of information in the World Wide Web is reliable? What strategies do we adopt to understand if a source contains trustworthy information? The goal of this project is to explore a class of cognitive capabilities involved in information search as a prominent case of skills relying on ecological regularities and simple heuristics. The rationale behind such a project is twofold. On the one hand, recent literature on information search on the Web has failed to acknowledge the relevance of this research field for the study of human cognition. It seems, though, that the study of information search skills could provide fundamental insights into some of the basic principles involved in judgment and decision making as well as social cognition. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that we rely on a variety of heuristics to tackle typical problems - like relevance and authority assessment - raised by information search tasks. The availabilities of trust and reputation cues in the Web makes this an ideal area of investigation for heuristic-based decision strategies (as information foraging models have recently proposed) and for biases in the assessment of reliability, trustworthiness and reputation that result from these heuristics. The expected outcome of this project is to provide a conceptual and methodological framework to orient further research on information search skills as a genuinely cognitive phenomenon and to contribute to a robust scientific foundation to applied research in this domain.

Production and consumption of reputation cues
Part of this project focuses on the study of authority and reputation cues driving information retrieval in the Web. As Web users with a limited knowledge on the reliability of sources of information and other agents, we systematically make use of reputational cues in order to decide whom to trust in everyday information retrieval tasks. I am particularly interested in studying how algorithmic cues (such as ranking indicators) and social cues (such as those afforded by collaborative annotation systems) concur in determining trusting behaviour. This project aligns with current studies on information foraging

Folk theories of search engines
The second goal of this project is to understand how users rely on search engines and knowledge aggregators as "expert systems" to acquire new knowledge. Understanding the interplay between the psychology of search engine users and the strategies used by search engines to filter, rank and display search results is the main objective of this project. I am especially interested in empirically assessing what Web users "know" or "believe" on the internal functioning of search engines and how our mental model of a search engine affects information search behaviour. This project resonates intersects with several strands of cognitive science research addressing the question of how we ascribe intentionality to cognitive artefacts as well as HCI research on query refinement and information search.


This project is funded by an individual Marie Curie EIF fellowship (2006-2008).
Grant number: MEIF-CT-2006-024460
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Department of Psychology
University College London


Prof Nick Chater, University College London


information search; information foraging; relevance; authority; trust; credibility; ecological rationality; heuristics.

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