NBC News reports that an intelligence crisis is undermining our problem-solving capacities and dimming the prospects of the global economy.
People are getting dumber. That’s not a judgment; it’s a global fact. In a host of leading nations, IQ scores have started to decline.
Though there are legitimate questions about the relationship between IQ and intelligence, and broad recognition that success depends as much on other virtues like grit, IQ tests in usethroughout the world today really do seem to capture something meaningful and durable. Decades of research have shown that individual IQ scores predict things such as educational achievementand longevity. More broadly, the average IQ score of a country is linked to economic growth and scientific innovation.
So if IQ scores are really dropping, that could not only mean 15 more seasons of the Kardashians, but also the potential end of progress on all these other fronts, ultimately leading to fewer scientific breakthroughs, stagnant economies and a general dimming of our collective future.
As yet, the United States hasn’t hit this IQ wall — despite what you may be tempted to surmise from the current state of the political debate. But don’t rush to celebrate American exceptionalism: If IQs are dropping in other advanced countries but not here, maybe that means we’re not really an advanced country (too much poverty, too little social support).
Or — just as troubling — if we are keeping up with the Joneses (or Johanssons and Jacques) in terms of national development, that means we are likely to experience similarly plummeting IQs in the near future. At which point, the U.S. will face the same dangers of intellectual and economic stagnation.
If we want to prevent America from suffering this fate, we’d better figure out why IQs are dropping elsewhere. But it’s uncharted territory. Until recently, IQ scores only moved in one direction: up. And if you’re thinking, “Isn’t the test set up so that 100 is always the average IQ?,” that’s only true because researchers rescale the tests to correct for improving raw scores. (Also, congrats, that’s the kind of critical thinking we don’t want to lose!)
These raw scores have been rising on a variety of standard IQ tests for over half a century. That may sound odd if you think of IQ as largely hereditary. But current IQ tests are designed to measure core cognitive skills such as short-term memory, problem-solving speed and visual processing, and rising scores show that these cognitive capabilities can actually be sharpened by environmental factors such as higher-quality schools and more demanding workplaces.
For a while, rising IQ scores seemed like clear evidence of social progress, palpable proof that humanity was getting steadily smarter — and might even be able to boost brainpower indefinitely. Scholars called it the “Flynn effect,” in homage to J.R. Flynn, the researcher who recognized its full sweep and import.
These days, however, Flynn himself concedes that “the IQ gains of the 20th century have faltered.” A range of studies using a variety of well-established IQ tests and metrics have found declining scores across Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, France and Australia.