Dumber by the decade: Humans are getting increasingly less intelligent, but why?
During the 20th century, we – that is humans in general – got smarter. Or at least smarter when it comes to IQ scores.
Yes, the IQ test is far from perfect and comes with all kinds of problems, but it was at least standardised and it showed consistent growth for the majority of the century rising, on average, about three points per decade. It’s a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect.
This isn’t sustainable growth, but you would hope that in the absence of breaking the scale, we would at least level off. Instead, it seems, we’re heading into decline.
That’s according to research from the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Norway, which suggests the so-called Flynn effect hit its peak for those born in the mid-1970s. From there, it’s been downhill.
If you’re looking for quibbles with the study, it won’t come from the data set. The researchers examined the IQ tests of 730,000 young men conscripted for compulsory Norwegian military service, born between 1962 and 1991. Of course, this is just men born in one country, but the results were clear. While we were averaging three more IQ points every ten years in the early 20th century, we dropped an average of seven per decade between 1975 and 2009.
In fact, this matches the 2009 work of James Flynn – he of the Flynn effect – here in the UK. While children between five and ten were up half a point per year over the previous three decades, by the time they reached their teenage years their IQ results were losing ground on generations past. “It looks like there is something screwy among British teenagers,” Flynn told The Telegraph at the time. “While we have enriched the cognitive environment of children before their teenage years, the cognitive environment of the teenagers has not been enriched.”
Why are our IQ scores slipping?
So now the trend has been seen and replicated across groups, the obvious question is why? And unfortunately, figuring that out comes down to our (comparatively) dopey new generations. Nonetheless, there are a few theories which could explain what’s going on here:
1) It’s real, and its down to how children are raised and educated
While this may sound a little reactionary, synonymous with how the kids are spending too much time on their iPadoodles, it’s actually hinted at in Flynn’s comment above. Teenagers may not have as cognitively enriching environment as their predecessors. Fewer books, less intellectually stimulating play, weaker schooling, etc.
Of course, as the dip has been happening since the 1970s, you’re looking at more gradual societal changes than just blaming technology and the like.
Still, Michael Shayer who co-authored a similar paper on IQ drop off last year told Euronews at the time that this couldn’t be discounted, arguing a “large social force has been interfering with children’s development of thinking, getting larger each year.” That social force includes games consoles and smartphones. “Take 14-year-olds in Britain. What 25% could do back in 1994, now only 5% can do,” he added.
2) The numbers are led by demographic change
If you’re hostile to migration, one easy argument to latch on to is that the downturn corresponds with increases in migration, and that averages are lowered by those with lower scores immigrating to areas with higher scores.
Despite being covered in scientific literature, this dysgenics-based argument made me queasy to write, even as an explainer. So I’m pleased to say the latest study damages an argument which could easily be latched onto by racists. The Norwegian study found IQ drops occurring between generations of the same family tree. So it’s not that – or at the very least, not exclusively.
3) It’s not accurate, and the IQ test is to blame
The IQ test is over a century old, and it’s entirely possible it just hasn’t kept up with how modern children learn for the lives ahead of them. The test is based on reasoning, and it’s possible this form of education has taken a back seat over the past 40 years.
This seems to be an argument the researchers have aired. Speaking to The Times, study co-author Ole Rogeberg elaborated on the point: “Intelligence researchers make a distinction between fluid and crystallised intelligence. Crystallised intelligence is stuff you have been taught and trained in, and fluid intelligence is your ability to see new patterns and use logic to solve novel problems.”
In other words, while the IQ test puts one type of intelligence through its paces, another kind is wholly neglected – and it’s possible that crystallised intelligence is still improving decade-on-decade. That would certainly explain why the average length of word on St Petersburg’s social media posts seems to be rising…