Does spell-check make you dumber?

Possibly so. A bunch of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh just did an interesting experiment. They took a handful of people with high SAT verbal scores, and a handful that had lower SAT verbal scores; then they had both groups proof-read a business letter. Those with higher SAT scores did better, as you might expect. They made five errors, on average — while those with worse aptitude for language made 12.3 errors on average.

Then the researchers repeated the experiment with different groups — but this time, let them use the spell-check in Microsoft Word to help them do the proofreading. The results? Those with higher SAT scores did worse — this time, they made 16 errors. Those with lower verbal aptitude also did slightly worse, though the erosion in their work wasn’t quite so drastic: They sunk to 17 errors. In effect, as CNN wrote:

… spell-check software may level the playing field between people with differing levels of language skills, hampering the work of writers and editors who place too much trust in the software.

Sure, it levels the playing field — by making everyone in a moron. Saved by technology!

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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