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Are we Becoming Less Intelligent? Why? What to do?

Education (1)

With the endless barrage of information hitting us 24 hours a day, permanent online “connection” and ever-unfolding social media discussions, we are very much in the age of big data. Ridiculous-sounding names like zettabytes (of which it is predicted there will be 175 in circulation in 2025) are used to describe data volume and there is no end to the analogies used to describe just how much of it there is:175 zettabytes stored on DVDs would circle the earth 222 times, there are 40 times more  bytes than there are stars in the observable universe and so on.

But massive amounts of data in circulation does not mean that we are necessarily any wiser for it. The chorus in TS Eliot’s play The Rock asks, mournfully, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”. In other words, what do we actually do with the data? Are we able to extract valuable knowledge from it?

One would think that in the knowledge economy of the age of information, with higher literacy rates than ever in history, human beings would be more intelligent than ever. The New Zealander cognitive scientist James R Flynn noticed that, on average, IQ test scores increased steadily from their first iterations until at least the 90s. This is known as the Flynn Effect. Successive score captures on well-known tests such as the Weschler test, Raven’s Progressive Matrices or the Stanford-Binet intelligence test were getting better as they were measured through time. A number of intuitive explanations were given by Flynn: literacy rates were steadily improving, more and more children were receiving a formal education, people were becoming used to the tests, nutrition was improving and the general environment was seen to be more and more stimulating.

However, some studies in the early 2000s showed that scores were in decline and, even though others showed general improvements recently as 2015, today, reports of IQ scores dropping are widespread and less contested. An important 2018 study  in Norway showed that scores are dropping at many different levels, within families and across generations. This study has controlled for a number of variables and means that we can say with some confidence that the cause of this decline is probably environmental.

That diminishing IQ scores seem to correlate positively with rising power in technology tempts one to see a causal link. After all, it stands to reason that the “smarter” the technology, the less solicited our psychic energy and mental application. As algorithms are used to determine analytical decisions in law, medical diagnoses and trading, replacing executive neocortical brain function, humans seem to be falling behind.

We also know now with relative confidence that multitasking, something we all seem to be doing (how many times did you check your inbox or social media posts till you got to this paragraph?) is not only impossible, it is a waste of mental energy.

Multiple studies have shown that attention spans are decreasing (we are being compared in attention span to Goldfish at present, although this is contested), more and more  children are being diagnosed with hyperactivity and attention deficit (although, as Ken Robinson pointed out wryly in his famous Changing Paradigms lecture, this might be because of increased screening). Nonetheless, if we add this overall trend to the learning gaps that Covid-19 has created, the future looks bleak.

Are we essentially headed to a future where people are less intelligent?

What does all of this mean for those of us in schools and universities. What should we be doing?


One response to this situation is panic, perhaps more specifically technopanic. This is the idea that technology is to blame and that, therefore, phones should be removed from young people because they are addictive and pernicious for their learning. The narrative here is that by removing certain forms of technology, students will spend more time on other areas, such as speaking with one another, reading and engaging with deep ideas. But is this true?

Popular media and intuition might make us want to ban phones, of course they are bad! But studies are contrasted and struggle to find a clear response. A recent  study by German psychologists concludes that “despite growing literature on adverse effects, it should be kept in mind that general smartphone use may also have beneficial effects on certain processes of attention, inhibition, and working memory”.

What is GenZ doing on their phones anyway? Do we know? Many are gaming, and studies point out cognitive and even mental health benefits of this activity. Others might be watching films, and fairly rigorous studies show that films do not affect cognition adversely and may have positive effects on wellbeing. Another prominent activity is social media interaction. Numerous studies show multiple social and cognitive benefits of this activity on teenagers however, there are clearly greater risks of cyberbullying. Wait list control design studies on older subjects show strong evidence of multiple benefits of social media.

In any case, one would have to do cherry picking to back up a scientific argument that removing phones will improve social and cognitive intelligence, so there is probably not much point in pursuing that, beyond folk belief and intuition. If the goal is to increase reading, which definitely does have cognitive benefits then I would argue that it is less by removing phones and more by encouraging and even institutionalizing reading (students reading out loud in class, throughout their schooling, even till university, is tremendously beneficial).

Moving to a More Inclusive Definition of Intelligence

Are average IQ scores and statistics on ADHD screenings really telling an accurate picture? And how important is it in the 21st Century to be able to detect patterns as one does in Wechsler scale tests? Cognitive psychologists will tell us that such general intelligence performance metrics can be generalized to many fields of human operation. But can they? Some psychometricians have gone against traditional psychometric testing, such as Robert Sternberg, whose triarchic theory of intelligence points to practical and creative intelligence, forms for which testing is still fairly underutilized.

Given the expanding literature on the competences necessary for human flourishing in today’s and tomorrow’s world, it is emotional intelligence and creativity  that will be better indicators than traditional “general intelligence” metrics. A number of groundbreaking assessment systems are underway, such as epistemic network analysis, which describes clusters of meaning and intentionality and movements towards new high school transcripts, which describe lifeworthy competences rather than purely academic skills and knowledge.

New coalitions and visions need to be, and are being, wrought to offer pathways that redefine what we mean by intelligence in the first place.

If we are becoming less intelligent, then we need to ask by which standards. Educational responses should keep with the times.