Humans getting smarter, psychologists claim

The future’s bright: IQ is rising steadily at a rate of three points per decade © PA

Performance in IQ tests is rising drastically all over the world, leading some psychologists to talk of a ‘cognitive revolution’. Are we becoming more intelligent, or just better at tests?

Modern education is shoddy, the internet is making us stupid, humanity is going to the dogs — or so you might think from the headlines that regularly appear in the press. According to a new study, however, the reality could not be further from the truth.

Researchers from Kings College London believe they have proved that the IQ of the average person has been rising sharply for decades. Their bold claim is based on a daunting amount of data: altogether, the team of psychologists studied 200,000 tests carried out in 48 countries over a period of 67 years. The average IQ is steadily improving in almost every part of the world, they conclude. Richer nations are currently ahead, but developing countries like China and India are catching up fast.

This study is emphatic confirmation of a trend known as the ‘Flynn effect’. The name comes from philosopher James Flynn, one of the first academics to notice that the standards of IQ tests were getting tougher by three points each decade.

This might not sound like much. But the practical results are dramatic. If a person of unexceptional intelligence today, with an IQ of 100 points, took an IQ test from 100 years ago, they would score around 130 points, putting them in the region of genius. If an averagely-intelligent person from a century ago took an IQ test now, they would be classified as having a severe learning disability.

There are many possible explanations for this. Some put it down to improvements in diet. Others believe we have become more savvy at taking tests. One psychologist even endorses the outlandish theory that exposure to electric light is feeding our brains.

Flynn himself has another explanation: modern life simply demands more analytical and logical skills than it once did. We are educated for longer and more scientifically, and when we get a job, it is likely to involve abstract reasoning. Even playing a computer game uses cognitive skills that would have been rare among previous generations.

An intelligent test?

There is no doubt that IQ is rising. But does that mean we’re getting cleverer? Some psychologists believe so: as the world becomes more intellectually stimulating and demanding, humans are adapting to it and discovering mental resources we never knew we had.

But not everybody is comfortable with such a sweeping conclusion. IQ tests only measure a particular type of abstract, analytical intelligence, some say — exactly the type of thinking that modern minds are trained to do. If these quizzes tested our ability to solve practical problems, say, or even our memory, we might well come to exactly the opposite conclusion. Our cognitive ability isn’t changing — just the way we use it.

You Decide

  1. If you ever have children, do you think they will grow up to be smarter than you?
  2. Can intelligence ever truly be measured?

Activities

  1. What is ‘intelligence’? Write down your definition and then compare it with the rest of the class. How different are your answers?
  2. Compare a peasant living in the 16th century to a lawyer today. Write down three things that each one would be better at than the other.

Some People Say...

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Stephen Hawking

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean I’m smarter than my parents?
Not necessarily. These improvements in average IQ are across the population. In any case, it is disputable whether intelligence is the same as IQ. However, there may well be certain areas in which you are more proficient than your elders: using computers helps with thinking logically, for instance, and younger generations are increasingly at ease with that.
I thought IQ measured your innate intelligence – doesn’t that mean its in your genes?
That’s a common but very harmful misconception. Some people have used variations in IQ across regions, ethnicities or genders to claim that certain groups of people are fundamentally less bright. This is absolutely wrong: IQ reflects people’s education and life experience as well as their innate abilities.

Word Watch

IQ
Intelligence quotient is a method of scoring intelligence invented in 1912. It is a comparative measure rather than an absolute one: the average intelligence within a population is fixed at 100. IQ has a mixed reputation since it has often been erroneously used to claim that some ethnicities are more intelligent than others.
100 points
The average IQ is always supposed to be 100, with two thirds of people falling between 85 and 115. An IQ above 130 supposedly indicates exceptional intelligence.
Diet
Although there are unhealthy aspects to the modern diet, it has wiped out the issue of malnutrition, which some psychologists believe was inhibiting mental development.
Tests
People unused to taking formal tests, for instance, often decline to answer a question unless they are certain of the answer. Those more practiced in tests tend to attempt more questions and therefore get a higher score.
Memory
In the past, many people could memorise astonishing amounts of information. The techniques they used are largely forgotten now thanks to our reliance on written memory aids.