Our modern lifestyle is under scrutiny. More and more people question whether our way of living enhances intelligence or, on the contrary, makes us fall into a kind of mental torpor, as if we were on automatic pilot. Scientists have also raised this question and have been analyzing our intelligence quotient for decades. The results are not encouraging.
The Flynn Effect: The years in which intelligence flourished
The tests to measure the intelligence quotient that have been applied since the twentieth century suggested that human intelligence was increasing. It is what is known as the Flynn Effect. In 1980 James R. Flynn collected data from 35 countries using the standardized WISC and Raven intelligence tests. He discovered that the IQ increased an average of 3 points every ten years.
Why has this increase in intelligence occurred?
There are several hypotheses. One of them aims to the improved diet, which provides all the nutrients necessary for the brain to develop and reach its maximum potential. Another theory points to the tendency to create families with fewer children, which allows to provide a more child-friendly environment. A final hypothesis refers to the growing complexity of the environment, which would act as a stimulus for intelligence.
The decline of intelligence
In 2004, researchers at the University of Oslo raised the alarm to indicate what the end of the Flynn Effect might be. From the analysis of the intellectual quotient of 500,000 people, they observed that in the 1990s there was a peak in the results obtained in the intelligence tests, but later that growth stopped and there was even a slight decrease in the quantitative reasoning subtests.
They were not the only ones, that same year a group of psychologists from the University of South Adelaide in Australia presented the results of 20 years of research with children between the ages of 6 and 13 who attended the same school. Their results indicate that from 1981 to 2001 the intelligence quotient stopped growing and they even observed a decrease in processing speed.
What is the reason for this decrease in IQ?
The dysgenic theory is one of the most widespread explanations. According to this theory, the most intelligent and educated people usually have fewer children, which would end up affecting statistically the level of general intelligence. At the same time, it is probable that people with lower IQ have more children and they receive less education, so they will obtain lower results in intelligence tests, which would contribute to a decrease in the results over time and to a “dullness” of the general population.
The era of “junk culture”?
A more recent study conducted at the University of Michigan that evaluated data of more than 700,000 people confirmed the decline of at least 7 points of the IQ per generation, which began in the mid-1970s, as the graph below shows. These researchers stated that “The decline in intelligence reflects environmental factors and no changes in the dysgenic inheritance.”
These psychologists compared precisely the IQ of siblings born in different years and found that, rather than being similar, as suggested by dysgenetic theory, IQ scores often differ significantly. This means that our intelligence is determined by the society in which we grow, the interests it promotes and the education we receive.
If we grow up in a society that promotes free thought – indeed – and encourages creativity, we are likely to develop our intelligence to the fullest. If society takes us away from reflection by proposing content exclusively designed to “kill time” and continually dictates what we should do, we will not have the opportunity to develop our problem-solving skills.
Today, more than ever, digital technology is controlling our attention in an addictive way. Unlike the television, the “idiot box” that stayed at home, the smartphone accompanies us everywhere, becoming a disruptive agent that continually demands our attention by plunging us into a state of “minimum consciousness”. And without attention, there can be no critical thinking.
We not only consume junk food but also “junk culture”. And that is reflected in our ability to solve problems, choose relevant information and, ultimately, from forming a critical thinking. The decision is in our hands.
Bratsberg, B. & Rogeberg , B. (2018) Flynn effect and its reversal are both environmentally caused. PNAS; 115 (26): 6674-6678.
Sundet, J. M.; Barlaug, D. G. & Torjussen, T. M. (2004) The end of the Flynn effect? : A study of secular trends in mean intelligence test scores of Norwegian conscripts during half a century. Intelligence; 32(4): 349-362.
Nettelbec, T. & Wilson, C. (2004) The Flynn effect: Smarter not faster. Intelligence; 32(1): 85-93.