In general, it is probably very difficult to answer the question of stupidity or intelligence, because intelligence cannot be measured as easily as our shoe size or body weight. Intelligence is something incredibly complex and therefore difficult to understand – it is experienced anyway. The most famous method is intelligence tests, which are aimed at determining the IQ, the so-called IQ.
But why do we ask this question? Can people really be dumber? The impetus for this is the observation that people in some countries have performed worse than expected on IQ tests in recent years.
This is surprising because it contradicts the so-called Flynn effect. New Zealand psychologist and political scientist James Flynn discovered in the 1980s that the measured intelligence of the world’s population is increasing every year and he does so as long as IQ tests are used.
These have been used to test mental abilities in various fields for over 100 years. This includes, for example, the speed with which problems can be solved, but understanding of language, general knowledge, spatial imagination and logical reasoning also play a role. The tests compare individuals’ mental abilities, for example, to determine whether a child should be supported because they have a learning disability or are above average gifted.
The result of these tests is the score, the so-called IQ. Flynn found that the average score increases by 0.3 points each year. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but in 100 years it will make a difference of 30 points. And that’s a lot for an IQ test, because this corresponds to the score difference between a learning disability, normal or gifted. That is why IQ tests must be modified over time so that the score is not incorrectly high and, for example, learning disabilities cannot be recognized.
Scientists are still arguing about the reasons why humanity appears to be more intelligent, and there are many different theories. Possible causes include, for example, better and better nutrition and healthcare. Because it is especially important for children’s brain development that they have sufficient and optimally healthy food and also do not have to constantly fight diseases. In addition, nowadays more and more attention is paid to nutrition during pregnancy, so that optimal development is also promoted here.
Another reason is better school education than ever before, which challenges and encourages children in a completely different way than before. In everyday life also, people are supposed to think more scientifically and logically. These “spectacles of researchers,” as Flynn himself called the phenomenon, are encouraged and rewarded from an early age. For example, model puzzle magazines, knowledge programs or puzzle games contribute to this. Therefore, today we can simply be better prepared for the typical questions of an IQ test without having to be smarter than our ancestors.
Have we become stupid again?
Surprisingly enough, researchers recently discovered that the Flynn effect is ‘weakened’. They analyzed many different IQ tests and thus were able to evaluate very large amounts of data over a long period of time from different countries. It turned out that the average value of IQ in countries such as Germany, Estonia, Finland, France, Norway, Austria and Great Britain either did not rise as much as expected, remained the same, or even decreased in recent years.
Norway is likely to be hit hardest: In 2018, Norwegian researchers published a study in which they evaluated more than 700,000 IQ tests over a 30-year period and found that IQ has fallen by two points per decade since the mid-1970s. A similar development occurred in Finland, Sweden and Estonia.
In other countries, on the other hand, skills are deteriorating only in specific areas. In Germany and Austria, for example, spatial awareness has declined since 1995. On the other hand, with vocabulary and general IQ, things have gone up in the same period. Another contradictory example is the United Kingdom, where children consistently underperform, particularly on abstract reasoning tasks, but broader intelligence tests point in the opposite direction.
To further confuse matters, the decline in IQ is not felt in other countries. In the United States, for example, the Flynn effect appears to continue unabated.
… and if so, why?
Here, too, the reasons for this are not really clear, so now scientists are busy looking for the reasons for the apparent decline in intelligence. The only thing scientists rule out for sure is that a genetic mutation is the cause. It is unlikely that a gene mutation will appear in such a short time in a broad cross-section of the population.
Instead, there have been two social developments that have long been popular explanations: on the one hand, people with low IQ have more children than parents with high IQ, and on the other hand, immigrants from non-industrialized countries do worse on IQ tests compared to the indigenous population. . These two factors will continue to lower the average IQ score. However, researchers from Vienna were able to refute these assumptions in 2018.
Instead, they believe that people often only improve on individual domains of IQ tests while declining skills in other domains at the same time. In her opinion, this development can also be found in specialized courses and increasingly professional fields. As long as we can continue to improve dramatically, at least in the individual areas, the total number of points will continue to rise. However, according to the researchers, the level has now been reached so high that we are no longer able to improve enough in specific areas to make up for losses in others. As a result, the overall IQ score no longer increases or even begins to decrease.
There is also debate about whether the level of education in schools is declining and whether children no longer face significant challenges. Another explanation might be digitization, which is supposed to change the way we think. We’re used to not remembering things anymore, but googling and even having a satellite navigation system tells us the path. It is also said that the constant use of mobile phones reduces our attention span and our ability to focus. However, this does not necessarily mean that we are as a result less intelligent. But it changes the way we think and treat problems.
So in general, it looks like we don’t do poorly on tests because we become stupid, but rather because we are more intelligent professionals and start to think differently. Besides the extensive Norwegian study, many studies of the anti-Flynn effect are based either on smaller samples or cover only subgroups of intelligence. So far, isolated reports of stagnating or declining IQ values have been countered by more findings that speak of another increase.