Why are Americans getting dumber?
IQ scores are nosediving after a long increase
New research from the United States confirms a worrying trend — a long-term decline in IQ scores. In cruder terms, Americans are getting dumber every year.
According to a report in Popular Mechanics, researchers from Northwestern University used “survey responses from 394,378 Americans between 2006 to 2018 to examine if cognitive ability scores changed within the US in those 13 years”. What they found was a general, though not uniform, drop-off in measured ability.
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Signs of decline have been picked up in other studies too. For instance, research by psychologist Jean Twenge found that Americans at each education level were less verbally skilled in the 2010s than their 1970s counterparts. And before Europeans get too snooty about the apparent dumbing down of America, there’s evidence of similar trends in France, Finland and German-speaking countries.
What makes this transatlantic trend all the more remarkable is that it follows a long period in which average IQ scores increased across the Western world, a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect. The evidence is now pointing towards a reverse Flynn Effect, in which the intelligence gains of the 20th century are being wiped out in the 21st.
There’s a lot of scepticism about the real-world relevance of IQ tests, but even if all they do is measure our ability to solve a certain class of abstract problem, we still need to ask why that ability is now in decline.
One theory is diminished motivation, that people today aren’t necessarily less able to pass IQ tests but just put in less effort. However, the fall in IQ scores isn’t consistent. The Northwestern research finds that in one important domain — the solving of shape rotation puzzles — scores are on the rise. If test takers are just getting lazier or more distracted, then surely we’d see a consistent decline.
One of the authors of the study suggests that the emphasis on STEM subjects in schools might be to blame for devaluing the purely abstract. I’m not convinced — a lot of science and most of maths seems pretty abstract to me.
Perhaps we should look for connections to another 21st century megatrend — namely, the decline in mental health among young people. Could these phenomena have a common cause?
An obvious candidate is the influence of smartphones and social media. After all, these are technologies that have altered the medium in which we immerse our minds daily. The influence of tech doesn’t have to be all bad — for instance, computer games might explain the improvement in shape rotation skills — but if cognitive ability and mental wellbeing have declined over the same period that we’ve become addicted to our glowing rectangles then, at the very least, we should acknowledge a correlation.
We should also take a hard look at over-attentive parenting styles and the ongoing safe space mentality in the education system. I doubt that robbing children of the chance to work things out for themselves is contributing much to their mental resilience or to their cognitive development.
One thing is certain. Over the course of 21st century, the way in which we form young minds has changed under the influence of profound technological and cultural shifts. The results are now in, and there is much cause for concern.
Scepticism of IQ testing is ridiculous. Few problems are wholly abstract and most have their counterparts in real experience – as in getting to the hospital by the shortest and quickest route. Moreover there is plentiful research to suggest that IQ outcomes are consistent with life outcomes: the cleverer you are the more successful you are likely to be. He who meanders to the hospital will most likely not succeed. He will perish. So who puts it about that IQ tests are “abstract”? Why the Marxists, of course, because it offends against their dogmas of “equality”. As for why western IQ is falling, there are many reasons and the mere mention of half of them is to risk falling foul of our increasingly vague and arbitrary laws. I shall leave these to other readers’ imaginations. But there are certain social trends which stand out as potential culprits. The decline of the family; the atrophy of motherhood; the farming out of children to creches, nurseries and the like; the loss of discipline, competition and reward for hard work; the corresponding rise in respect for delinquency, sloth, resentment and rebellion; the rejection of elite culture, the growing disdain for books and the dependency of young minds on constant, visceral forms of stimulus. In other words, by the usual dreadful paradox, we have been snared by progress itself. And if some opponent seeks to confront my assertion of motherhood’s importance, let him (or her) reflect on the acres of research linking the scope of a person’s vocabulary to the degree of conversation to which their female parent subjected them in earliest infancy.
Strange that you’d see someone questioning what you’ve written as an “opponent”? In itself, a symptom of something, which i’ll leave to your imagination.
However, may i enquire what you mean by “the atrophy of motherhood”? Would a stay-at-home mother be more or less likely to have a wide vocabulary which she could impart to her offspring than someone who took her motherhood duties seriously whilst remaining engaged within the workforce?
What’s wrong now, team?
Of course they’re an opponent. Alarm bells should only ring if one uses the word “enemy”. Opposition, sustained by opponents, is part of debate – and the freer and more assertive debate is, the better. Too much “politesse” allows people’s tolerance of disagreement to wither away until disagreement results – as of old – in fights. Nowhere is more achingly polite than the U.S, and nowhere is more prone to groupthink or socially less tolerant of heresy. As for the atrophy of motherhood, yes, I mean precisely the end of the stay-at-home mother, and no she doesn’t have to work in an office to acquire a wide vocabulary. She has literature for that. Indeed, at home, she might even be able to write it, too. And since you’ve chosen to root an insinuation in an innocent choice of word – opponent – allow me to criticise the pejorative tone of your expression, “stay-at-home”. It suggests a very masculine disdain for a very feminine virtue.
I disagree. One can question a point, to further elucidate the debate without being an “opponent”.
I’d hope any mother would be able to impart that to her offspring.
The issues he raises are lines in the sand and areas for conflicting or opposing views and attitudes. ”opponent” is a reasonable term in this context. Keep hoping, parents who leave their very young children in childcare have delegated a large and important part of upbringing to individuals and organisations of whom they have little insight concerning values and the child is just one of many to be given attention. It seems fine for most parents in today’s society but his point is possibly valid. How about addressing the issues in his comment?
Why would you think stay at home mothers wouldn’t be well educated? Your vocabulary is well developed by 21. Leaving the work force for 10 years, at 25 or 30, isn’t going to change that.
Also, the day care worked spending 40 hours a week with your kid is unlikely to be well educated, and certainly cares about the child way less than the mother.
From personal experience as a mother and a lot of reading up on parenting (which sadly i cannot reference now as it was 13 years ago!) i formulated the following views:
1) kids need their parents at all ages but the truly crucial period is 0-3.
2) during this time what is most needed is love, which can only really come from a family member (or next best thing: a nanny if you choose well and find one who has a strong tendency to feel genuine care and love)
3) there is a dose response relationship to the love. So if you are at work from 9 to 5 you miss most of your kids life, and they receive a lower dose of love. Even if you are totally focused on the children at weekends (assuming you are not too tired from work). Nursery staff cannot form these proper bonds as they have too many kids in a large group together.
4) love actually makes them smarter. So its not just about the “education” of babies which is really a bit of nonsense to sell you pointless toys. Perhaps the intelligence or iq of the parents is important genetically. An intelligent educated woman who is also loving will make a great mother.
It is really hard for young women today to know what to do. Many know deep in their guts that packing kids off to nursery as babies is no way for kids to grow up. But they feel pressure to earn, provide, and “achieve” in careers, and so block this out and convince themselves it is fine.
Yes a thousand times to this wise and eloquent comment.
No evidence for that in the real world. Research has shown consistently that children who have access to professional childcare (“center-based”, as they would call it) do better in cognitive development than their counterparts of the same age who don’t. No woman acquires special insight into education and child development just by giving birth. Low-iq, low-education individuals will provide their off-spring with childcare consistent with their abilities. It’s also the case that daughters of working mothers do better later in life than the daughters of stay-at-home mothers (no such correlation has been found for sons). So you’re free to complain that it’s not 1950 anymore, but let’s not pretend that it has anything to do with real-life evidence.
Oh, we have to have our sneer, don’t we? Not 1950? 1850 was miles better. And both are infinitely superior to the ugly, concrete nowhere which the left are making of the former Christendom. But to the point. Do you not see something creepy, even vicious, in the snobbery and disdain you display for “Low-iq … individuals” and the implication that it would be far better to take their children away from them? Do you not register the totalitarian implications, not only of your suggested prescriptions but of the tone in which they are offered? What if these poor, inarticulate mothers happen to love their babies? Doesn’t matter! Take them away to Professor X or Dr Y for intensive indoctrination and improvement! As for evidence, well we all know that the left – having seized intolerant control of many social science departments – can manufacture apparent evidence in Stalinist quantities, so I fear that your magical invocation of such studies – references? Quotes? Don’t bother – has little force. So let us turn to common experience, which is that children raised with love by their parents are better off than anyone; that the outcomes we speak of must be measured first and foremost against the basic contentment which can only come with such love; and that love is the only medium through which teaching is fully effective. You can plonk a baby before the most talkative egghead in the world but he (or she) will scarcely learn anything in such dead and clinical situations.
Wheres your real life evidence?
There aren’t many UK-based studies focusing on EHE, but those that do exist have found that home-educated children on average score higher than other children (e.g. Rothermel, 2002; Hopwood et al., 2007).
Come back with your own sources or don’t bother.
Jones got 48 likes and Murray 17 dislikes.
Had to remind myself that the theme of this space is unherd (not part of the herd also un-heard)
Use of social media and constant distraction-by-smartphone is, I am sure, fragmenting our thinking and destroying our ability to apply ourselves in a sustained way. These skills are key ingredients in solving complex, abstract issues.
Getting a handle on an abstract problem typically involves: 1) understanding the basic concepts and definitions you are dealing with and the principles underpinning the specific field; 2) thinking about the different results these principles will produce when applied in various situations, and 3) applying the principles to the relevant real-world situation.
From my studies and practice of law I know that this process is lengthy, difficult, at times frustrating…and requires stamina to think through knots in logic, sort out anomalies etc.
What chance do minds conditioned only to stay put long enough to absorb a tweet or TikTok video stand when faced with such a challenge?
This is true, but i wonder how much it applies to the West (as has been implied by others) rather than globally, with similar use of smartphones not specific to those countries the author cites.
Purely a matter of demographics. Importing a large number of Latin-Americans or Africans and not enough Asians changes the national IQ figures.
Welcome to Costco, I love you, Welcome to Costco, I love you, welc……..
Idiocracy should be mandatory watching.
A while back there was an article about Idiocracy in the Guardian, people with a left wing view of the world like the film too it seems, they have also spotted that its slowly coming true. What they will never understand or admit is that its mainly their own policies that are driving the change
I think that statement self evidently proves immigration trends nothing to do with the reduction. Thanks for such a great personal example.
Do you suppose – just maybe – that this has anything to do with the educational system, the dearth of reading, let alone reading challenging material, and the shift to the passivity induced by digital devices, i.e. the shift of our society from a speech and text-based culture to one that is addicted to visual imagery? Americans are choosing and being seduced into being stupid ( not “dumb” ).
no, its clearly being driven by demographic change
replacing a person with an IQ of 130 with two people with an IQ of 75 is a step back, even if the two with an IQ 75 work together they still can’t do the same work as the person with IQ 130
Clearly? And your evidence base?
I’ve always sensed those with a form of racial grouping prejudice have a lower IQ. Especially when they confirm it by drawing attention to their holding such views even if trying to find indirect language. The smarter ones tend to not display it so visibly.
This is easy enough to test if demographic data was collected. Does IQ vary by demographic? How much of the observed change in IQ is accounted for by the changed demographic weights? Previous increases in IQ, although named after a person called Flynn, are consistent with an expected natural selection for IQ in all demographics.
using the word ‘dumb’ itself is a sign of stupidity and a gross disrespect towards those unable to speak- therefore Peter F is somewaht stupid and ill informed – shocking really – the rest of his research may be fine – but not a good look !!
Flynn himself thought that the spread of the scientific way of reasoning played a role in improvements in IQ score. Therefore begging question – has this reduced and resulted in corresponding IQ reduction? Does the prevalence of social media mean it’s become too easy to locate a like-minded tribe and close down one’s ability to think for oneself? Lazy affirmation of a cognitive bias atrophies neurons perhaps.
Similar theme one of best books read last year was ‘Stolen Focus’ – Johan Hari. ‘There is no way we can have a normal brain today’ a quote from eminent French scientists looking into brain development. Hari refers also to a small study of college students which found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. Social media, email, smart phones which beep every time you receive an incoming messages, steal our concentration so the contention goes. Feels intuitively right doesn’t it. We didn’t have these distractions when we were young.
And then we know Jonathan Haidht written about the dangers of such technology in young – the first generation ever to be exposed to it with mental health consequences and others we are still grasping. All begins to add up doesn’t it.
Finally switch the SatNav or Google Maps off. The same part of the brain that evolved to help with direction finding (a crucial skill) is believed linked to some forms of dementia. Using electronic aids removes/reduces the need to use this evolutionary set of neuronal connections. It’s like a muscle – use it or lose it. This of course has a light hearted touch but underneath a truism perhaps lurking.
Never knew this. I know we are getting fatter. So we’re getting stupider as well. Go team west!! The future looks bright.
Hmmm… without a similar analysis of IQ scores from areas of the world outside “the west” it’s pretty premature (i won’t label it any worse than that) to predict Western demise on the basis of this article.
That’s totally fair.
It’s kind of nice to have an official verification of something I’ve noticed and wondered whether it was objectively true or more of a function of my age (61). Emojis only go so far when it comes to communication and thought. Hard to get deep using emojis, although I’m sure someone has (please don’t share that website with “Dante’s Inferno” rendered in emojis: life is too short).
Our human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. Intellect relies on an ability to think. Attention and thought go hand in hand. In young people the problem is exaccerbated by “coaching to pass” rsther than “teaching to think” in secondary schools. We have instituted Critical Thinking for all 1st year UGs in our fa ulty (the #7 global university according to QS rankings) because of the pervasive nature of the problem. And the cohort are over 50% international.
20-30 years ago all I heard about was the nanny state and the dumbing down of the BBC etc, Lo and behold not long afterwards IQ scores are dropping………..maybe they were right.
Any analysis of IQ that ignores changing demographics is worthless.
The shift from controlled to uncontrolled migration is surely a factor.
Great, so we are shackled to an increasingly stupid, bankrupt, politically confused, America. Fun times.
I cannot imagine what I said in my original post which offended the moderatorbot, but I have emended my contribution.
It’s just as likely that someone who took a dislike to your post or a previous one you’ve made on the site flagged it. I have that happen regularly on here, as do others. Take it as a compliment that someone is sufficiently riled up by your comments that they demand that a virtual mummy or daddy comes to protect them from the big bad words.
A possibility the author doesn’t mention is how ubiquitous computers have become and how many complex mathematical and physical problems are basically solved by inputting data into a computer program. It’s pervasive. Rather than try to recall information ourselves, we have someone ‘Google it’. Rather than doing extensive mathematical calculations by hand, we input the data into a computer and watch it spit the results out. We make important policy decisions, such as climate issues and pandemic response, based on data from predictive computer models. Traditional IQ is not particularly helpful for these things. It may be time to update how we measure intelligence given the trend towards automation, emphasizing imagination, creativity, understanding context of problems, interconnections between problems, and critical thinking rather than raw problem solving skills. I’ve been asking this question since I was in school. What is the point of learning to solve problems by hand when calculators exist? The answer is there isn’t one unless somebody decides that there is because of some abstract concept like IQ. Education, mass public education at least, should be pragmatic rather than idealistic.
Twitter has trivialized every public issue. Depth of analysis is disappearing in a thin blue cloud as most non-readers digress to birdbrain consciousness.
Do IQ tests measure anything other than the ability to do IQ tests?
Why are Americans getting dumber?
Well, their President has got a tie from an Irish rugby player who beat the hell out of the Black and Tans.
While it may be true that “science and most of maths seems pretty abstract”, the way these subjects are taught these days is rarely abstract, and is pathologically focussed on “applicability” and obviously-contrived “real-world” examples.
The results are now in, and there is much cause for concern.
Well yes, but as with any population statistic what should it be for what social circumstances? Would ‘society’ work ‘better’ with fewer bright young things or do we need all the brainpower we can get to cope with the 21st century?
Teaching prevented us from learning; so we are all dumber than fully developed adults.
Evidence? For one thing, this naïve trust in measuring “intelligence” and “smartness”.
Also, that Getty picture at the top should make us ponder what we are allowing to happen to our children.
There is no such thing as IQ. I have never taken an IQ test in my life. I question whether anyone who sets any store by them is sufficiently intelligent to be allowed out alone, if at all.
The whole thing depends on “mental age”, whatever that may be. The IQ of children in numerous countries has “improved” dramatically over the years when IQ tests have been set, and therefore taught to, in schools. Indeed, that never fails to happen.
The publications of Mensa are a particularly rich seam of amusement. “More people than you might think are above average”? I’m guessing about half of them. “One person in 20 is in the top five per cent”? You don’t say! And so on.
But never try and tell the “I have a high IQ” lot any of this. Yet you would not have to, and indeed you never could, do anything to get a high IQ, even if such a thing really existed. Having it would be no cause for congratulation, still less for self-congratulation or for the creation of an international society for mutual congratulation.
Mensa members in the US get discounts on health and car insurance. That’s the only reason I joined.
Raw cognitive ability (call it whatever you want, but IQ is a good short-hand) explains more of success in life than any other factor. Now, it doesn’t come close to explaining everything (it explains something like 25% of the variation in income) but it explains more than any other factor. IQ shouldn’t be over-rated, but it shouldn’t be ignored either.
” I’m guessing about half of them”
that’s only assuming we are working with data that has a perfectly normal distribution. Big assumption that could be not true
Maybe you could qualify to join Densa – the society for people who are not very clever.
Feel free to propose me at the next meeting.
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