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  • Writer's pictureDannielle K Pearson

Is Human Intelligence in Decline?

It happens regularly, a rant on social media, a meme, or a viral video highlighting humanities obvious intellectual limitation.  In my professional as well as social circles there is always one person that routinely questions the lucidity of their fellow humans.  What limited mainstream media I consume; I am inundated with tribalism and what feels like an ego driven sense of what is right or wrong, often with a visceral tone.  Even domains that were once safe, feel fraught.  I recently listened to a lecture delivered by Astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson, he unabashedly poked fun at, pop cultures, naive understanding of basic maths concepts. The general tonality felt like an admonishment rather than an opportunity to learn.  Most educational psychologists agree that the strength of a person’s vocabulary, is the single greatest determinant of intelligence.  A study from the San Diego State University in 2019, found that vocabularies, even amongst the most educated across English speaking countries, has atrophied by 12.5% over the past 40 – 50 years.   Trends like these aren’t promising.


It's hard at times not to condemn humanity to the plotline of Idiocracy.  If unfamiliar with the movie, actor Luke Wilson plays an Army Librarian who is chronologically frozen and wakes up five hundred years in the future to find humanities dependency on technology has created a race of barbaric idiots.  You don’t need to be a member of Mensa to connect the dots.  Even Disney’s Wall-E, portrayed future humans as disconnected, unmotivated, victims of their own greed and ambivalence.  


But is it true?  Is human intelligence in decline?  Are we on the pathway to Idiocracy, or at minimum a race of consumer hypnotised Muppets?  In short, probably not, and if we are – a lack of intelligence is not the likely culprit.


What is Intelligence and how is it measured?


Interestingly, there is no universal definition for Intelligence. Assuming intelligence is solely housed in the brain, the human brain is so complex, that no definition, at least to date, captures all facets.  Most definitions include a laundry list of concepts like abstract thinking, logic, understanding, and reasoning.  Some include self-awareness, creativity, and intuition, others define it as, simply, the ability to adapt when the circumstances call for it.


We equally lack a universally accepted method to measure Intelligence, logical given we lack a clear definition.   Intellectual Quotient (IQ) tests are the closest measure. The IQ Test created by French Psychologist Alfred Binet in 1904 was designed to test aptitude of common skills used in school, which included: attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.  The test was designed to identify students more susceptible to performing poorly and enable educators to course correct.   It was never intended to act as a universal measurement of intelligence.  Despite this, most modern-day standardised tests, are heavily influenced by IQ tests.  There are significant questions around the validity and efficacy of these tests.  In the past they have been used as means to discriminate against test takers less proficient in English, from college admissions, immigration status and specific to America, they have even been administered to prisoners in the US prison system. Those that test high enough, are eligible for the death penalty (given the crime is fitting); a bit chilling when you apply the tests original intention.


What does the data say?


Acknowledging the current means of measuring intelligence are not infallible, based on what is available, intelligence is on the incline, not the decline.  In the 1900s the average IQ was 70, now the average hovers around 100; that’s a 42% increase in just a 120-years.  Whether you agree that IQ tests accurately capture intelligence, the test does espouse general intelligence themes, and a 30-point increase, is not statically irrelevant.   


While there is evidence that our vocabularies are in decline; there is an unavoidable link between the rise of the emoji and the decline of verbal expression.   While vocabulary is a determinant of intelligence it’s also cyclical and heavily influenced on factors like peer groups, and how often we read. Studies have show those that read fiction, boast vocabularies 40% larger than non-readers or those that solely read non-fiction.  There is no doubt social media, and texting have disrupted our relationship with language, but communication has not been subverted but rather evolved through complex imagery and media.  This may equal a decline or potential extinction of written communication as we have come to know it, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to a decline in human intelligence.  In fact, it may signal the need to evolve our definition of it.


We are more formally educated than we have ever been. There are clear links between education and higher intelligence levels.  In 1974, the average person, living in an OECD country, averaged 11.83 years of formal education, in 2016 the average was 13.86 years.  In 2020, 90% of Americans graduated from High School, compared to 63% in 1974, and 52% attended University, compared to just 40% in the same period. Different ratios exist across the developed and developing countries, but the upward trend towards education remains the same across all countries, irrespective of their macro-economic status.   Noting there are multiple means to attain an education, school being only one of them, the increase in education infers a longer period of being exposed to varying viewpoints, concepts, and (in theory) a prolonged period consuming written text.


Finally, and most importantly, our ability to process abstract concepts, far exceeds that of our peers 100 years ago.  Abstract thinking, 100 years ago, was reserved for the “gifted” today, it is commonplace. With advancements in technology, our world in 2024, is far more complex than it was, even 30 – 40 years ago.  


Final Thoughts


While the data is not perfect, there is some relief in knowing that it is not all doom and gloom. Much of the “frustrations” I encounter, or feel, are more ego based then merit worthy.  We may not be on the pathway to Idiocracy, but this does not mean we are in the clear.  I am consistently reminded of our universally absent ability to critically think, the uncomfortable rise of tribalism, a decline in basic communication skills, and an unheeding loss of integrity across media platforms, both mainstream and social.  These things are unequivocally harmful, and in my opinion steps in the wrong direction. However, I also believe these are growing pains, and a by-product of the world we have created and actively creating.  We are not even half a century into our use of the internet. A technology that has unleashed endless potential.    Terms like, digital disruption are often reserved for the professional domain, but it applies to humans at our core; how we communicate, learn, build relationships, find a life partner, and even the formation of our identities – these are not small things and will take generations to grasp and flush out.  I find it hard to believe that any past generation wouldn’t have struggled to adapt without significant growing pains.  To me, it’s undeniable that our intelligence has increased, it’s just whether we will choose to continue this trend or engage in behaviours that will regress it, that to me is the real question.

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