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The Lightbulb Generation?

ByCassandra Lord

Mar 17, 2015

Are we getting smarter? Or is it just that we’re better at answering IQ tests? Over the years, average results in IQ tests have risen in many countries, suggesting that we are getting more intelligent. However, other studies suggest the exact opposite. What is the reasoning behind all this?

James Flynn, a philosopher and psychologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, is famous for something called the Flynn Effect. When looking through test manuals for IQ tests, he noticed that when the tests were revised around every 25 years, the people who set the test would get a panel to sit both the old test and the new. He noticed that in doing so, without fail, everyone would get a higher score in the old test than the new one. To put it simply, the tests were becoming harder.

Amongst other researchers, Flynn has found that all over the world newer generations score higher on the old tests than the original test-takers did. Increases vary from place to place, but the average increase is around three IQ points per decade. Many people suspect that the increase in IQ scores simply reflects modern improvements to environments. IQ is seen as partly heritable and partly environmental. By giving a child more opportunities to learn, better nutrition, and better schooling, it is quite possible that they would score higher on IQ tests.

These days we are, in a sense, trained to think in the way that IQ tests work. Flynn gave the example of the comparison between asking a question to his father, and asking the same question to a schoolchild. Asking the question: “What do a dog and a rabbit have in common?” his father would have been likely to answer, “dogs hunt rabbits”, looking for associations, whereas a schoolchild might answer “they are both animals”. Although the first answer is not wrong, it is not the answer to the question. Flynn made the point that until quite recently, categorisation was not necessarily the way in which people thought of the world. In this sense, IQ tests would not necessarily be a measure of intelligence, but of modernity.

In light of this, some researchers have turned in another direction, looking at reaction times rather than IQ tests. Michael Woodley, a psychologist at Umea University in Sweden said that: “The idea is that reaction times represent your ability to engage in very basic and elementary cognitive processing”. Reaction time tests are also not nearly as influenced by culture and upbringing as IQ tests.

In the 1880s, an English scientist named Sir Francis Galton measured reaction times in 2,522 young men and 888 young women from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds as part of his work as the founder of the field of eugenics. He found that men’s average reaction time to a stimulus was 183 milliseconds, and women’s was 187ms. 12 similar studies to Galton’s conducted after 1941, on the other hand, found an average reaction time for men of 250ms and 277 for women, notably slower.

Woodley and his colleagues continued research into this, including making sure the old and new studies were measuring the same things. Although timers may have improved since the 1880s, Woodley asserts that Galton’s measurements are accurate within ten ms. He also confirmed that Galton’s data showed what one might expect as, for example, groups with higher levels of inbreeding did not perform as well.

“We found a very, very robust trend with time, toward slowing speeds of reaction,” he said, “which is consistent with the idea that the more stable, the more culturally neutral, the more genetically influenced components of intelligence have been declining rather than increasing.” This information suggests that even with rising IQ scores, perhaps our ability to get smarter is in fact shrinking. In this way, the Flynn effect could be hiding an underlying decline.

However: “A dull person has just as quick a peak reaction time as a brilliant person”, Flynn told LiveScience. Someone with a lower IQ may not be able to stay focused, so their reaction times wouldn’t necessarily be consistent throughout an experiment, meaning their scores can vary much more widely than those of people with a higher IQ.

“Is this really neural speed, or for a dull person, [or] is it much more difficult for them to be attentive to the task?” Flynn asks. Reaction speed can clearly be affected by other factors, as some schoolchildren may be more willing to take risks rather than show a sign of intelligence, and this can vary not only from child to child, but between different cultures.

With intelligence being so hard to measure, it is difficult to rely on IQ tests or even tests of reaction time to gather whether we are in fact becoming smarter or more stupid. However, it is clear that the way we think and react changes over time, particularly in the modern world where so much is regulated and made safe, in such a way that our reaction times do not need to be as high in many aspects of our daily lives. Our intelligence as a whole may well be getting higher, or it could be the same, but the way in which we use it may be changing. As Michael Woodley said: “It’s not simply that intelligence is going down or going up…different parts of intelligence could be changing in lots of different ways.”

 Photo: Jeff Kubina

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