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Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ Scores In the Twenty-First Century 421

hessian sends this excerpt from The New Republic: "[A] person who scored 100 a century ago would score 70 today; a person who tested as average a century ago would today be declared mentally retarded. This bizarre finding — christened the 'Flynn effect' by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve — has since snowballed so much supporting evidence that in 2007 Malcolm Gladwell declared in The New Yorker that 'the Flynn effect has moved from theory to fact.' But researchers still cannot agree on why scores are going up. Are we are simply getting better at taking tests? Are the tests themselves a poor measure of intelligence? Or do rising IQ scores really mean we are getting smarter? In spite of his new book's title, Flynn does not suggest a simple yes or no to this last question. It turns out that the greatest gains have taken place in subtests that measure abstract reasoning and pattern recognition, while subtests that depend more on previous knowledge show the lowest score increases. This imbalance may not reflect an increase in general intelligence, Flynn argues, but a shift in particular habits of mind. The question is not, why are we getting smarter, but the much less catchy, why are we getting better at abstract reasoning and little else?"
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Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ Scores In the Twenty-First Century

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  • Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @08:49AM (#41776431)
    I have to abstract myself away from shit like Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, Survivor, Jaywalking, etc. The things I hear pass for intelligent conversation now scare and enrage me. I for one do not believe American's at least are getting any smarter.
  • by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @08:55AM (#41776505)

    Most IQ tests are in written form, so they can only be administered to children and adults old enough to read. So, only people who've been exposed to at least kindergarten plus (for a lot of people) preschool.

    I am not a teacher, but I would venture to say that a whole buckload of evidence-based developmental psychology has gone into improving the educational system since 1912. Plus, things like school enrollment have gone way up. In 1912 a lot of rural kids -- and most people lived in the country -- went to one-room schoolhouses.

    So I would think that IQ scores should go up in the competency areas schools have been trying to cultivate. And I would say, thinking about how different the education system probably is today, I'd be more surprised if nothing had changed.

  • Our World (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Murdoch5 ( 1563847 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @08:58AM (#41776549)
    100 years ago your day included throwing on overalls and going farming. Everything was X, Y, Z, you could write it down, follow it and have it work. Even the early industrial movement showed thinking that followed X, Y, Z. As humanity has progressed and started to apply philosophical ideals to tasks we have developed systems where a job that was once X, Y, Z is now a complex equation of variable introduction. Fundamentally everything has seen this shift, from farming up to global commerce. So why have the IQ score gone up, well I would say it's probably because of the mental level of application required to grasp the basic ideas.
  • the obvious cause (Score:5, Interesting)

    by slashmydots ( 2189826 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @08:59AM (#41776557)
    If you practice at something for years, you get better at it. I played video games for a lot of years and now I'm a puzzle-solving genius by 100 years ago standards. It's all because of video games.
  • by alphatel ( 1450715 ) * on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:02AM (#41776607)
    Despite being exceptionally bright, I never scored higher than 125 on the IQ tests they made you take in high school. Some years later I decided to try to get a high IQ to qualify for Mensa. After studying for only a month, I scored 145 on math and 132 on English. Can anyone make themselves appear smarter? Yes, despite the fact that many claim we can't.
    Disclaimer: I may have been stoned to the bejezus when taking some of those high school iq tests.
  • by jittles ( 1613415 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:05AM (#41776643)

    Most IQ tests are in written form, so they can only be administered to children and adults old enough to read. So, only people who've been exposed to at least kindergarten plus (for a lot of people) preschool.

    I am not a teacher, but I would venture to say that a whole buckload of evidence-based developmental psychology has gone into improving the educational system since 1912. Plus, things like school enrollment have gone way up. In 1912 a lot of rural kids -- and most people lived in the country -- went to one-room schoolhouses.

    So I would think that IQ scores should go up in the competency areas schools have been trying to cultivate. And I would say, thinking about how different the education system probably is today, I'd be more surprised if nothing had changed.

    They do have non-written IQ tests that they give in certain circumstances. My school had me take an IQ test in 4th grade. They thought I cheated on it and made me take it again. The second time I was being monitored by someone from the school district. The second test they gave me was not written at all. They gave me physical puzzles and had me solve different challenges and measured the time it took me to solve each puzzle. I don't know how accurate the written test is compared to the physical test, but I am sure it is much more expensive to administer the second test over the first.

  • IQ tests still used? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:08AM (#41776683)

    I don't know in the US, but in europe nearly no one uses them anymore, they're considered just like puzzles that you can find on a weekly magazine. And it's weird that they are developed by psychologists, who are not exactly the smartest people around. It would be more appropriate if they were developed by physics PhDs or similar.

  • by jfruh ( 300774 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:21AM (#41776815)

    Sorry this is uncited, but I remember reading about an IQ test that western researchers tried to give to residents of a rural African village sometime in the mid-to-late 20th century. Most of the villagers were illiterate, so the crux was developing a test that didn't involve reading or writing. One of the test items involved a bunch of abstract shapes that had been molded out of clay; the villagers were told to match the shapes that "went together." Most of them "failed" this part of the test, because the researchers' definition of "passing" would be to match up shapes that looked alike, whereas the villagers tried to interpret the shapes as real objects and group them functionally, e.g., they matched spherical objects that looked like fruit to long, thin objects that looked like knives.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Paul Jakma ( 2677 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:23AM (#41776831) Homepage Journal

    BBC News is pretty simplistic too. It's good for getting a broad overview, but if there's any story you're interested in you'll almost certainly have to go somewhere else if you want to get actual detail. Channel 4 news are better at detail, but sometimes prone to over editorialising.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ironhandx ( 1762146 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:26AM (#41776879)

    This is only true to an extent. There is a very strong relationship between your genetics and your intelligence however.

    For example a kid born from parents with IQ's below 90 is adopted and raised by smart parents(say 140+) He's almost certainly going to be smarter than his biological parents. He is also almost certainly never going to be as smart as his adopted parents.

    I see this causing problems in adopted kids households all the time. Parents are smart, parents waited too long to have kids, adopted baby from trailer trash that were too dumb to not procreate. Kid gets into his teens, school gets harder, parents can't understand why the kid is having so much trouble with stuff they breezed through, and neither can the kid because he doesn't know he's adopted(which just adds more frustration), and it causes a whole lot of tension.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ToadProphet ( 1148333 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:28AM (#41776901)

    Your examples use the very brightest of those civilizations and doesn't necessarily disagree with TFA. It's entirely plausible that the brightest of today may not be any more intelligent then the brightest from centuries ago, but that average intelligence has risen due to access to information, public education, etc.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:31AM (#41776949)

    shit like Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, Survivor, Jaywalking, etc.

    Conversely, compare modern dramas and comedies with their counterparts from 30-40 years ago. Even the network stuff has gotten a LOT more sophisticated, with complex plotlines and subplots spanning across multiple seasons that regularly employ devices like symbolism and metaphor, creative mixes of genres, etc. Now go back and look at the old stuff and realize that it wasn't that long ago that it was considered that all prime-time television should consist entirely of self-contained episodes with simple plots (even subplots were once avoided) that beat you over the head with every point. Seriously, just compare the original Star Trek sometime with something like new Battlestar Galactica for a check on how far pop culture has really come in the last 40 years. Sure, 90% of everything is still shit (and always will be). But, overall, our popular entertainment today is WAY more intelligent than it was just a few decades ago. Even our lamest sitcoms are more intelligent today than anything you would have encountered in the disco era. Even M.A.S.H. seems anachronistically silly by today's standards.

  • Spatial reasoning (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:31AM (#41776959)

    Men supposedly have better spatial reasoning based on the tests of manipulating blocks or gears in space.

    But this is a culturally relative test.

    Give a female who cooks a blob of leftovers or dough and she can pick the correct container that will hold the container without waste or a lot of air space. Most men can't.

    Give a female a pile of dishes and a dishwasher vs a male with the same dishes and dishwasher and the average female will more effectively load the dishwasher than the male.

    These are both spatial reasoning puzzles which are more complex than those given on tests.

    Females have spatial reasoning- most of them just didn't play with lego blocks.

    The tests are biased to men. That's why men have "superior" spatial reasoning.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:45AM (#41777135)

    It's important to understand that IQ test were not designed to measure a person's aptitude, but rather measure a person's whiteness.

    There was a series on several years ago (BBC :: Connections) where James Burke was describing the town criers
    from the 15/16/1700's. He said that they would enter a town, and sing/chant the news for a couple of hours (or some time
    like that) then leave. After a single hearing, people had memorized the whole chant. Try that today - ain't happening.
    But, I'm pretty sure those people would never grasp the concept of an iPad.

    I remember when my son was in school, I questioned some of the questions on the test for racial bias; the school was not
    happy about that at all. They're so institutionalized in their system, it's outside of their scope to see the problem.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dmbasso ( 1052166 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @09:47AM (#41777157)

    You are jumping to the conclusion that it is genetic related, when the anecdote you brought ("adopted baby from trailer trash") is most probably better explained by the consequences of development while in the womb. Or do you think a baby (whatever the genetic code) can develop normally within a system flooded with cortisol, alcohol, nicotine, etc.?

  • Re:Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LordLimecat ( 1103839 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:04AM (#41777409)

    I think part of the problem is that noone seems to have a consistent definition of "intelligent", and sometimes it gets conflated with "wise" or "experienced" or "knowledgeable".

  • Complexity (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Lord Grey ( 463613 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:07AM (#41777435)

    "The question is not, why are we getting smarter, but the much less catchy, why are we getting better at abstract reasoning and little else?"

    I am not a teacher or psychologist, but I have to wonder if at least some of this can be attributed to the things we have to normally deal with on a day-to-day basis. Specifically, in how those "things" have changed over time. As an earlier poster pointed out, life was a whole lot simpler several decades ago. Technology was much simpler and therefore easier to understand. The average person interacted with fewer people, less technology, less variance in their daily routine. Now, in developed countries at least, people are forced to interact with complicated devices and many people who are not actually present (via phone, teleconference, email, whatever).

    People used to be amazed by the telephone, back when it was first invented. Many thought the user was talking to the device, not through it. Understanding that the telephone enabled remote conversation is the type of abstract thinking I'm trying to get it here. Multiply this by the hundreds of devices we're surrounded by and it's no wonder that people think more abstractly than 100 years ago. People have to, in order to deal with all the technology.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:22AM (#41777649) Homepage
    Yes, actually you have been getting smarter, and in ways that are sometimes subtle and not obvious. However, the Flynn effect leveled off in Great Britain about 20 years ago [] But until recently it was statistically robust.

    It's pretty obvious from reading old Greek or Roman texts that people are pretty much the same now as they've always been. Shakespeare shows that nothing much has changed in England for over 400 years.

    There are two serious issues with this claim. First, most (although not all) of the Flynn effect has occurred on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum. That means that the smartest people may not be that much smarter, but the average intelligence has still gone up by a lot. See for example []. Second, people today seem to be in some ways smarter than many of the smart people a few thousand years ago. For example, it used to be a big deal that someone was able to read so well that they didn't need to murmur to themselves or move their lips, whereas now we consider reading out loud a sign of stupidity []. It is possible that part of this difference was simply cultural, and that silent reading was purely a matter of education and norms. But the fact that some old sources considered silent reading a sign of intelligence suggests otherwise.

  • by MrLizard ( 95131 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:33AM (#41777837)

    In an era when access to facts is a click or a tap away, it becomes much more important to be able to know how to use those facts, than to have a mental storehouse of them. Because the scope of human knowledge is orders of magnitude more than any person can grasp, we are forced to rely on the opinions of others in all but our own narrow areas. If I read an article on, say, a potential cure for cancer, I know I lack the scientific knowledge to replicate the research or even build a good mental model of what's supposed to be happening, biologically, except on a very crude level. So to make judgment, I have to engage in pattern-matching, not fact-checking. Does this article contain the kinds of keywords, phrases, and tone that I've come to associate with woo-woo fringe theories, or does it seem in line with things I already know to be factual? Is it presented in a forum which has a reputation for rigor, or is it in a site featuring articles on aromatherapy and aura reading? Does it discuss limited results, provide caveats, and discuss risks, or does it promise instant and universal cures with no drawbacks and talk about how "they" are "terrified" of this discovery?

    This applies in virtually every field of knowledge. We can't judge most things on the facts, because we can't know all the facts. We have to rely more and more on pattern matching and abstraction to reach conclusions. Most of us devote our "locally hosted fact storage" to that data pertinent to our daily lives, our jobs, and our favorite hobbies. A big chunk of what's left goes to meta-information about how to GET facts when we need them, and what's left is devoted to deciding if what someone is presenting as a "fact" is actually true, and to evaluating the value of each fact as it weighs in our opinions.

    (It's a common mistake that if a person disagrees with you, it's because he doesn't know the FACTS! Odds are, he DOES know them, at least if he's anyone worth having a disagreement with. He just *weighs* them differently, because people apply facts as a means towards achieving their values and goals. Only in Jack Chick tracts and the like do people suddenly change their minds because a random stranger spews a series of "things you didn't know!" at them. Hell, even if you can prove beyond doubt that a particular justification for an opinion is objectively wrong, people will retain the opinion and look for new "facts" to support it. (Note how no matter how many times someone debunks a particular myth about Obama, or Creationism, or 9/11, or "free energy", or vaccines, the people who believe in conspiracies never change their beliefs -- they just find some new "proof". "OK, so the original study that linked vaccines to autism was proven to be a complete and utter fraud? So what, there's plenty more "proof", and besides, I don't believe it was a fraud, it was a frame up by the evil corporations!")

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:34AM (#41777843)

    Sorry, but most IQ tests are not in written form. Professional IQ tests do not require any writing at all. I know this because I study and have administered countless of them. Some of the tests that have been studied with regard to the Flynn effect require writing, but the Flynn effect has been demonstrated on completely nonverbal tests, where you don't have to even speak. Responding to the non-Western issue raised elsewhere also, it's also been demonstrated with totally nonverbal tests in totally nonliterate non-Western societies.

    Explaining the Flynn effect has been elusive, and it's not going to be solved on Slashdot, despite what some think. All of the explanations being floated here and more have been researched (competition, diet, nutrition, intellectual pastimes, literacy, decreased serious congenital disease, decreased inbreeding, etc.), and although some of them might explain a small fraction of the Flynn effect, most of it has remained unexplained.

    Two other things regarding the Flynn effect are noteworthy:

    First, there is some evidence the Flynn effect has been declining in the last decade or two, in some places. I.e., people aren't increasing in their intellectual ability any longer (they're not decreasing, but they're not increasing). This phenomenon has been noted by some theorists in support of their explanation (i.e., I think this was cited along with inbreeding trends among those who have advocated that explanation).

    Second, although individuals have been increasing on tests of general cognitive ability, they have not been increasing as much or as clearly on academic achievement tests during that time period, at least in the US. In fact, I think on reading achievement tests, there's actually be some evidence of decline over the long term in certain regions (although whether it's statistically significant is unclear). This is important as it suggests people aren't improving on every type of performance-based test. It's also important because it suggests that a lot of what people think of as intelligence--academic achievment--isn't actually the thing that's been increasing in the Flynn effect (if it actually still is increasing).

  • Bred for it ! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by redelm ( 54142 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:43AM (#41777991) Homepage

    Why all the denial and knashing of teeth? Accept the Flynn effect as data, most likely the result of a vastly more technological society that requires more intelligence to run & live in. This even works for the one-third of intelligence that is attributable to environmental development. Human are nothing if not adaptable.

    On the two-thirds genetic component of intelligence, it is likely that both women and men are selecting mates with an increased emphasis on intelligence, and decreased importance of other factors like health or strength. Nothing radical (3+sigma still won't get a date) just a central small shift.

    In any case, the upside of intelligence has to pay for the downside (indecision, depression?autism?mental illness). Humans have always had this potential for increased intelligence, but before the upside never paid the downside. Now it increasingly does.

  • Re:Simple... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:55AM (#41778147) Homepage Journal

    No, you are born as intelligent as you will ever be. It's all downhill from there. Everything from chemicals to injury will decrease intelligence, which you are confusing with education.

    On the other hand, you are born more ignorant than you will ever be -- you are born knowing absolutely nothing except how to suck a tit.

    You confuse ignorance with stupidity. Ignorance is the lack of knowledge, stupidity is the lack of ability to learn.

    That said, I'm getting less intelligent and less ignorant, both at once, all the time. all the time

  • Re:the obvious cause (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ThreeDeeNut ( 1061050 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @10:56AM (#41778153) Homepage
    Honestly, I think your right. Games are just one example, but yea people also have more time to dedicate to the obscure intellects. Maybe that answers the underlying question he asks.

    It seems to stand to reason that when your not forced by nature to be spending every minute of every day worrying about your survival. Imagine how much work it must have been to hand till or even horse till a field. Regular hunting for food. The hours spend washboarding your clothes, and the difficulty of shopping daily for other food because of the lack of abundant refrigeration. We take it for granted now, but a drive through cheeseburger joint was something mythical 150 years ago. Now instead of worrying about survival, we put efforts into abstracts. We have the luxury of time to dedicate to tv, games, youtube, and other edutainment medias.

    I mean even in work our lives have become extremely abstract. I would bet 150 years ago that even something like a resume was only for the elite if even they needed them. The rest of us would have been left with the choice of milk the cows or tend the crops on the family farm. You didn't even have to look for the work, there was plenty enough to do. Take the time back to 300 years (which really isn't that far back in time) and we would seem like aliens and be totally unrelated to people and their daily activities.
  • Re:Simple... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bengie ( 1121981 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @11:08AM (#41778391)
    Everyone in my immediate family is considered "smart". Both of my brothers have done AP classes and the one was doing Senior level AP as a freshman. We all tend to do well in anything we put our minds to, yet we came from a family with very little money and we didn't fit well in school because we don't learn the same way the other kids do.

    Then there's my extended blood related family. They all grew up in low income and had to work their way through life, but most of them got college degrees back in the 70s. One got a free ride and the other was a heroine and cocaine addict for 5 years, and still tested as "gifted". He was offered a free ride to an Ivy League, but his mind was so gone he had to eventually decline.

    We had no special up-bringing and we came from manual labor families. Even many of my cousins are testing as gifted. Go figure. The entire family is rather easy going and don't push their kids. We just all tend to naturally excel at academics.
  • by ideonexus ( 1257332 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @11:25AM (#41778655) Homepage Journal

    Mental retardation [] is an actual medical term which is subject to the Euphemism Treadmill [] effect, where over time a term becomes an insult in common usage and the professionals have to find a new word that doesn't have the baggage associated with it to maintain professional integrity (Similar to the reason we call them "Bathrooms" today instead of "Water Closets" or "Toilets" as the two latter terms became too crude through common usage). Don't blame "political correctness" on this, blame crass people like Anne Coulter [] who use the medical term in a derogatory sense towards those who don't have the disability without any sensitivity to those who must actually live with the condition.

    Replace the word "Retard' with "AIDS carrier," "Cancer Survivor," or "Quadriplegic" and try making the argument that the offense people take to your use of these terms to disparage others is just "political correctness." The reason you don't use these terms as insults is because these are human beings who can fight back. "Retard" is okay because the mentally retarded can't defend themselves. Coulter is a bully and a coward for using the term and defending its use.

    People like Coulter who call the backlash against their use of these words "political correctness" do so because the word "ignorant" applies to them. They are ignorant of the suffering of others, ignorant of medical science, and ignorant of basic good taste. I used the world "retard" as an insult when I was a child, but I'm an adult now and I am educated enough to know how abusing that word abuses those who are living with this debilitating condition [].

  • Not so Simple... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MRe_nl ( 306212 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @11:47AM (#41778995)

    Intelligence varies with at least 21 factors
    Some of the other circumstances and attributes that have been found to vary to a greater or lesser (but always significant) extent in relation with IQ (Bouchard & Segal, 1985; Liungman, 1975) - note that not all of these relationships support an environmental view.
    Intelligence varies with:

    Infant malnutrition (-ve)
    Birth weight
    Birth order
    Number of siblings (-ve)
    Number of years in school
    Social group of parental home
    Father's profession
    Father's economic status
    Degree of parental rigidity (-ve)
    Parental ambition
    Mother's education
    Average TV viewing (-ve)
    Average book-reading
    Self-confidence according to attitude scale measurement
    Age (negative relationship, applies only in adulthood)
    Degree of authority in parental home (-ve)
    Criminality (-ve)
    Alcoholism (-ve)
    Mental disease (-ve)
    Emotional adaptation

    "No single environmental factor seems to have a large influence on IQ. Variables widely believed to be important are usually weak....Even though many studies fail to find strong environmental effects....most of the factors studied do influence IQ in the direction predicted by the investigator....environmental effects are multifactorial and largely unrelated to each other."
    - Bouchard & Segal (1985), p.452

  • Re:2 words (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Friday October 26, 2012 @01:32PM (#41780387) Journal
    Iodine is critical for mental development in childhood and necessary for metabolism as an adult. It's also one of the nutrients that is hardest to get from a diet without variety (especially salt water fish) because it is leeched out from soil and run to the ocean. Iodized salt has meant that the average human being around the world is less iodine deprived and thus not as likely to have mental deficiencies from the deprivation.

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