Is Mankind Getting Smarter?


business-intelligence-systems400All parents think that their children are geniuses as soon as they’ve uttered their first word or figured out that a square peg doesn’t fit in the circular hole. A new study, appearing in the journal Intelligence, shows that today’s children might actually be smarter than ever.

Researchers Peera Wongupparaj, Veena Kumari and Robin Morris of King’s College London analyzed 64-years-worth of data from 405 IQ studies involving over 200,000 individuals in 48 countries.

When looking at results from one part of the test, known as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices, researchers found that average intelligence has risen 20 IQ points since 1950. The greatest increases were noticed in emerging countries, with China and India leading the trend.

This isn’t the first study to notice a new age of intelligence. As far back as 1982, James Flynn, a philosopher and psychologist based at New Zealand’s University of Otago, realized that IQ test takers were apparently getting smarter, since their scores stayed at a mean of 100, even when the tests were revised and made more difficult. This pattern is known as the Flynn Effect.

According to the Flynn Effect, IQ, on average, has been rising at roughly three points per decade. Explaining the phenomenon confounds scientists and researchers.

“There are lots of theories, none of which is particularly proven,” says Robin Morris.

One could offer explanations citing the increased education of children around the world, increased years in school, improved teaching methods, etc. Psychologist Arthur Jensen argues that modern education gives children “test wiseness,” an improved level of skill in performing well on tests, learning test-taking tactics and dealing with the pressure of the situation. James Flynn agrees that “test wiseness” could account for increased US test scores in the first half of the 20th century. However, this doesn’t explain the whole picture: since then, the number of IQ tests being given has decreased and IQ score increases have remained steady.

Flynn attributes the ongoing progress to a shift in how modern people think – in a more abstract, scientific way. In the past, and in many developing countries, scientific methods of hypothesizing, classifying and making logical deductions were untaught.

“Now, virtually all formal schooling, when you get past the sixth grade into high school and college, means that you take hypotheses seriously,” says Flynn. “This is what science is all about. And you’re using logic on abstract categories.”

Flynn pointed out in a TED Talk that Americans today are doing more intellectually-demanding work than ever before in history. Furthermore, smaller-sized families and changes in society mean that children are subject to more adult conversation and interactions. In regards to rising IQ scores, he said, “I think America is a society where economic and environmental differences are much greater than they are in Scandinavia. And, for example, black Americans have terrible schools, and they have had terrible conditions to live under.”

Other explanations for the Flynn Effect have included the spread of electric lighting, as argued by Arthur Jensen. His theory posits that the proliferation of light from bulbs, TV screens and computers symbolize a rise in the acquisition of knowledge around the world.

Then there is the theory that today’s world is more visual than ever before. Wongupparaj, Kumari and Morris’ aforementioned work on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices required test subjects to identify patterns in an array of stripes and squiggles. This test showed the greatest of all increases over time. Could it be that the increased visual stimulations of the modern world – television, video games and smartphones – have made us more intelligent?

Further theories focus on nutrition and its relation to intelligence. In 2008, Richard Lynn argued that prenatal nutrition determines birth weight, which correlates to higher IQ later in life. This theory might match up with a 2005 Chinese research paper which found that iodine deficiency among children in China stunted intellectual growth.

Flynn himself states that the growing increases in IQ scores might not be about intelligence at all. “I don’t think smarter has anything to do with it,” he says. “Today, we have a wider range of cognitive problems we can solve than people in 1900. That’s only because society asks us to solve a wider range of cognitive problems. People in 1900 had minds that were perfectly adequate for remembering first cousins once removed, they were perfectly adequate for ploughing a farm, they were perfectly adequate for making change in a store. No-one asked them to do tertiary education.

“It’s like a weightlifter and swimmer. They may have the same muscles when they were fertilized in the womb, but they would have different muscles at autopsy, wouldn’t they? So today at autopsy, certain portions of our brain, for example those which use logic and abstraction, would have been exercised more and look differently. Other portions of the brain would have shriveled a bit.”

So, we might conclude that while certain mental abilities – problem solving and reasoning – have improved, our underlying cognitive abilities have remained much the same as before. If so, then the true problem might lie in the IQ tests themselves.

The jury must remain out on this issue. However, Robin Morris argues, “It seems to me that it’s reasonable to think that intellectual functioning could increase over time in more developed societies.”