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Are We Getting Dumber? Depends On Who You Ask

Are We Getting Dumber? Depends On Who You Ask

A new study has come out in the journal Intelligence suggesting that the average Western IQ has actually declined by 14 points since the Victorian Era. The study was based on the results of 14 intelligence studies conducted between 1884 and 2004 — which showed a slowing of reaction times to a visual prompt. The participants in early studies were able to respond much more quickly than modern test subjects — with an average of 194 milliseconds compared to today’s 275 milliseconds.

The authors of the study point to all sorts of reasons for this drop in intelligence, in particular pointing out that women with high IQs tend to have fewer children. The suggestion is that smart people have somehow started to weed themselves out of the gene pool over the past century and that we’re slowly seeing the population become dumber and dumber.

There’s just one problem with this research: mental processing speed doesn’t actually have anything to do with how smart you are. It just means you respond to things quickly.

Gifted educators have known this for years — and it turns out, the more intelligent a child is, the more likely that they’ll show a significant gap between their verbal reasoning abilities and their mental processing speed. The results become even less relevant when the test is measuring random information, instead of asking a child to solve a problem.

In fact, lifelong gifted education advocate Dr. Linda Silverman goes so far as to say in one report on the challenges of IQ testing for highly intelligent children:

A Full Scale IQ score that averages gifted reasoning and average processing skills fails to identify either the giftedness or the relative weaknesses. Test authors have wrongly assumed that gifted children are fast processors. Some are very quick; others are reflective or perfectionistic, slowing their speed. Gifted children also show a preference for meaningful test materials, and may not perform well on short-term memory tests or other tasks that utilize non-meaningful material. They usually perform so much better with meaningful material that their scores with non-meaningful material are difficult to interpret.

She goes on to note that a majority of gifted students she’s tested — 60% — score much lower on processing speed than on verbal reasoning. These students have a gap so high in the different scores that are averaged to determine their IQ that the final score is actually meaningless (and usually a serious underestimate of their abilities).

Even the publishers of these tests admit this is a problem — and they’ve provided alternate methods for determining a child’s true intelligence in cases where the processing speed gap makes the IQ score meaningless.

So what does this new study actually mean? Without detailed testing of the average reasoning and verbal abilities of modern and Victorian populations…not much.

It just means we react a little more slowly to visual information. That’s definitely a shift that requires a little more careful study, but it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily a stupider society than we were 100 years ago.

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Photo credit: biologycorner

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151 comments

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10:14AM PDT on Jun 7, 2013

Oops made a mistake said there instead of their.

10:10AM PDT on Jun 7, 2013

This exactly what I see! Americans are getting dumber fatter and angrier. We drive fast we eat fast and too much. We think slow, have lost creativity. Believe fox news. Fear everything, waste everything. Don't listen, don't read, don't have any independent thought. Don't believe we are effecting climate. No nothing about science biology or ecosystems. Live in the past. Build stupid big houses spray chemicals all around there houses. Still buy big trucks to hall around nothing except a big body to go to burger king. Believe in Santa Claus at 50. Have children like they would go to the store to buy junk. Teach their kids how to be stupid and ignorant so we can have a dumber and dumber society.

8:02PM PDT on May 29, 2013

LOL Ironically, I meant to say "publishers".

8:00PM PDT on May 29, 2013

Shannon, one of my biggest pet peeves is poor spelling and writing amongst people who should know better. However, I recall the same concerns being expressed about this new school of teaching writing methodology 20 years ago, and many of the students these concerns were expressed about have been in management level positions by now. I work with some, and they seem just fine. Those who didn't learn better are probably working on assembly lines, etc, same as any other generation. Much of the evidence I see for bad spelling and writing these days can be blamed on all the writing I was previously NOT exposed to back in the days when no teen had access to email and blogs and facebook, so I can't say for certain if this is evidence of increasingly poor English writing skills amongst today's youth, or mere evidence of the democratisation of written expression. It used to be that if you wanted to read the missives of total strangers, their writing first had to be vetted by publishes. That's no longer the case. Instant communication also discourages proof-reading, so the results are likely better when people bother to take the time to self-edit before hitting send. In other words, I still have to see any evidence that people are becoming dumber.

5:35PM PDT on May 29, 2013

Basically, kids are not being taught in school anymore, critical thinking, research skills, nothing.

5:33PM PDT on May 29, 2013

Every person i meet who is under 30 years old, have absolutely ZERO grammar or spelling abilities, thanks to spell check, and this stupid "we might stunt their creativity if we correct them". Really? These people will be running our country soon folks, and how dumb will Canada and the USA look at the UN meetings, with all of our documents spelled incorrectly and no punctuation. Proper spelling and grammar is the basis of any human being, if you sound dumb when you talk, nobody will listen to you, know what I mean?

3:39PM PDT on May 29, 2013

Great article Julie; It gives you a lot to thinbk about. I enjoyed the comments made by the care 2 members. Thank you all

1:27PM PDT on May 29, 2013

Nah. Information is just knowledge, not the ability to use it or understand it. Just look at the CIA, the bunch of useless bumblers.

8:31AM PDT on May 29, 2013

IMO this generation's smarter due to information at their finger tips.

3:19AM PDT on May 29, 2013

Interesting

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