Web Culture

Are We Getting Dumber? Or Is Stupidity Just More Visible Online?

Bryan Clark 20-05-2015

If studies are correct, you may be too dumb to read this within another couple of decades. Or, you might be too smart to want to.


I could craft a narrative with significant data to back up either point of view. Facts and studies exists on both sides of the argument and, as a writer, I’m well-versed in making numbers dance for my amusement.

Let’s not do that, though – let’s dig in and see if we can get to the bottom of this.

A Tale of Two Studies

James Flynn, a New Zealand political scientist, released a study in 1982 with significant data to support the hypothesis that IQ had risen 3 to 4 points per decade since 1930. To this day, The Flynn Effect, as it came to be known, remains a point of contention and the subject of dozens of studies that attempt to prove or disprove it.

Here are two of them.



The Woodley Study

A team of three psychologists based in Sweden, Belgium and The Netherlands, and led by Michael A. Woodely completed a study in 2012 (and published the findings in 2013) that nearly set the Internet on fire. News outlets, blogs, and social media users all over the world published clickbait-esque titles that all showed one logical conclusion: we’re getting dumber.

The study tested reaction times in subjects based on previous findings that those with higher IQ tended to react quicker to external stimuli. Their findings supported this, and the study concluded by boldly stating that we are, in fact, far less intelligent than our Victorian ancestors.

The results were probably attributed to dysgenic fertility. To put it simply (because we’re apparently not as intelligent as we once were): the stupid are breeding at a far faster pace than their more intelligent peers.

King’s College Study

Published in the April 2015 issue of the journal Intelligence, researchers from King’s College London analyzed 64 years of IQ score data from more than 200,000 people in 48 countries around the globe. The findings showed that global IQ scores 10 Websites With Fun Tests To Gauge Your IQ Read More have risen by, on average, 20 points since 1950.


The largest of these gains exist in developing countries like India and China, where there’s been massive improvements in technology and education. Countries like The United States, Australia and Germany showed much smaller increases.

Both studies (and dozens more) offer contradictory results, but maybe we’re taking the wrong angle. Maybe IQ isn’t a great indicator of intelligence anyway. There are a number of additional studies and tests that suggest short term memory, reasoning and verbal ability are far more reliable methods to measure intelligence. None of the three are measured in a traditional IQ test.

Let’s keep looking.

Why Are There So Many Idiots on the Internet?



The answer eluded me, so I called for backup.

I contacted a clinical psychologist from my home town in St. Louis, Missouri in order to get his thoughts. Michael Krownapple teaches and maintains a practice, so maybe he can shed some light.

“Intelligence is a complex concept. There is a belief that generational changes are prevalent, such as the Flynn effect. However, the way we measure intelligence is frequently biased toward verbal abilities – if a person “talks smart,” in short. Problem is, language is also complicated. It changes and evolves between generations and cultures. Technology, such as social media can change both us as well as language. Whether that’s good or bad is subjective.” – Michael Krownapple

I think Michael is on to something. Maybe the problem is in the way we perceive intelligence rather than an actual decline in IQ. But why does this perception exist?

The Jester Effect

We like to laugh at people who are – how do I say this? – stupid. While on some level we realize what we’re doing is insensitive, we’re predisposed to believe that people who do dumb things are, well, funny 8 of the Best Monty Python's Flying Circus Sketches [Stuff to Watch] Very few other comedy troupes have broken as much new ground as Monty Python did when they were first broadcast on the BBC in 1969. Not only was the humour fresh, well-delivered and very, very... Read More .


Since I couldn’t find a term that described this behavior, I made one up. The Jester Effect is prevalent in every part of modern entertainment consumption. Shows like Jackass, Jersey Shore, and Cops make oddball and seemingly-idiotic acts acceptable to laugh at 15 Funny Yahoo Answers Questions that Will Make You LOL Hard Read More . In fact, these shows, and others like them, created a new form of celebrity that exist solely to entertain the brainless with their newfangled form of comedy.

Media Influence

The media isn’t immune to The Jester Effect either. With 24-hour news cycles and an endless need to fill dead time with something, news networks, blogs and offline publications turn to the cheap and predictable to fill the gaps. In fact, major news networks might have once justified this by arguing it was just filling a blank time slot, but with the celebrity crazed culture we live in you’re just as likely to hear news about that stupid thing Kanye West did as you are to hear about global conflict, technological breakthroughs, or financial market information.

Since the media acts as a filter for communication, they often publish the things that garner a response, no matter how ridiculous it is. Whether it’s a letter to the editor, or an interview that comes across as downright idiotic, there’s viral appeal in cherry picking items that get people talking. There’s still appeal in good journalism How Facebook Is Changing News Journalism for the Better News outlets are considering publishing stories straight to Facebook. It's easy to be cynical. But this change could be a good thing – for readers and journalists. Read More , but it seems to be dwindling.

Platform Amplification


Last but not least, it’s at least plausible that idiots just have more opportunities to be heard than ever before. To compound this, the prevalence of smartphones that are capable of excellent photo and/or video documentation of just about anything make it pretty difficult to hide.

Within the social media era, the opportunity to say or do something stupid – and watch in horror as other people find it – is at an all-time high. Even if they don’t find you directly, there’s syndication through social media channels and major publications, as well as the near certainty of your stupid act being indexed by Google.

It all makes it harder than ever to forget about that time you had too many Jello shots and fell through a plate glass window.

Don’t Feed the Trolls


Trolls dominate the Internet 5 Most Effective Ways To Deal With Arrogant Internet Trolls The Internet is without doubt a great invention. Unfortunately, no one so far has been able to develop and anti-troll device that will help to make it a more civilized place. You might have come... Read More . At least some of the credit for our overall perception of dwindling intelligence (in an online setting) has to be attributed to trolls. More often than not, trolls like to light a fire by saying something stupid or argumentative – comments that they might not even agree with – and then retreat so they can admire their handy work from a distance. This is especially prevalent in the comment fields of popular blogs, forums, and especially YouTube.

According to Krownapple,

“I think that during times of rapid change, youth culture tends to predominate making an overall atmosphere that can be both fabulously brilliant and idealistic while at the same time immature and childish.”

So What Did We Learn?

Measuring intelligence is difficult to do. There are many factors at play, and it’s not as cut and dry as “this is smart,” “this is not.” To further complicate matters, the entire debate revolves around perception, rather than actual intelligence.

In short, the conclusion eludes us. In fact, there might not be a conclusion to draw in the first place. I suppose this, as subjective as it is, is going to continue to remain a matter of perception for most of us. For the rest? Don’t worry, they weren’t smart enough to make it this far.

So what do you think? Are we getting dumber, or is the Internet just making it easier to spot the idiots among us? I want to hear your opinion in the comments below.

Stupidity on Warning Road Sign via Shutterstock, Doctor Tom Saves The Day by Murray Barnes via Flickr

Related topics: Online Commenting, Smart, Trolls.

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  1. Smarty Pants
    March 15, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    Jester effect?

    It's called slapstick.


  2. Anders
    July 28, 2019 at 8:05 pm

    We learned one thing, the initial question (the headline) is something you're not intelligent enough to research, gather data about or reach any form of a conclusion regarding... (you've put Laci Green in the post, if there's something she isn't it's intelligent so she can't talk about it and you putting her video in proves you're quite a bit lacking in the regard of intelligence yourself)

  3. Betsie Saltzberg
    October 9, 2016 at 12:51 am

    Both verbal & non-verbal intelligences can be evaluated with good precision given standardized tests. Emotional intelligence is another story. I believe the bell curve has been migrating towards the lower end of the scale for at least 20 years. Yes, it's definitely in our faces due to reality tv & social media. The most frightening aspect of these two phenomena? The moronic mayhem of both mediums seems to be both contagious & oddly "instructive." That is to say, young people are looking to both & "learning" what they interpret as normal, acceptable behavior, when in fact, it is anything but that.

  4. fracas
    September 11, 2016 at 5:48 am

    "..and then retreat so they can admire their handy work from a distance."
    Ironically, I'm pretty sure you meant "handiwork".


    **leaves the internet, never to return again.**

  5. Philip Bates
    May 29, 2015 at 10:35 am

    I don't think idiocy is the only issue: negativity is also given a greater platform. As you say, trolls are everywhere, and they encourage similar viciousness. I think people forget that the folks they're aiming their criticisms at aren't just faceless nobodies: they're real people, working and caring and struggling through their own difficulties. On the Internet, people are more often than not, anonymous, at least to some degree, so it allows you to not only shout at them, but also fade into that anonymity yourself.

    • Bryan Clark
      June 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      That's a good point.

  6. Lisa
    May 24, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    Might be way too long so get it if you delete !

  7. Lisa
    May 24, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    This is a great question! Given he choices in this generation and , what kids are learning ... Wall why there spending countless hours glued to their IPads . Perhaps not so physically fit and tad lazy . Here's where the soccer mom , taxi driver and cook and occasionally get to sit down and read a few emails . Seem stimulating enough for a 40 something mom who ran the streets of San Fernando valley from sun up to sun down . I have a great story and now I'm worried about going on too long , but I have a great end to all this . Like I said it couldn't be bothered with the computer ., could hardly wait to drop all three kids off and AAAHHH FREEDOM ! Practically toss them out to jump on my mountain bike and climb the quiet mountains for few hours and served me well because old mom raced for specialized and won several state championships. Okay enough about my easy great life .. So like thought . Married a captain of LAFD perfect kids ,, master at history science and thought I was pretty smart . WELL here I go ; seems I'm not all that bright for the new technology world and yes a probably third grader couldn't have possibly navigated right into the Unknown .. The deep dark web .. I though I pretty sharp super witty and street smart . Hhhmmm I started to get a little board and looking around how to update my iPad .. Seems harmless enough . I surf the web and have little ADD I'm not a bull in a china shop . I started to feel like ... Yes crazy because , because I kept getting reroute and pages that were more like blogs . Just asking how to update , and would get I'm web site and scrolling down the air was just getting thinner and I kept thinking or feeling someone was in my iPad .. Yes thinking maybe I'm losing it and ignored all the 1099 passwords I had to keep resetting and every website I had to log into.. Yes crazy and starting to lose my mind and so aggravated .. Didn't stop me .. Like hansel and greddle.. I followed the many weird flags and crumbs into I will say most fascination well designed site ... Couldn't get there again if was offered a million dollars . Plethora of information and blogs ..which I wasn't reading because felt like I was in pure euphoria like a kid at Disneyland , but way more stimulating . So much to see , so I thought ,, I definitely had anxiety and pushed it to the end . From ever corner I see things are not quite right .. But like any kid in never never land I was going to take in everything I could .. Even though I felt the walls closing in on me and soon a warning saying sinners phone is in here and warned me to get out .. Well I still just didn't have enough and Boom the fire started and bullits if they could .. All the blogs shut down and well let's say they were not the kindest group to this dumb mom who really had no idea how I got there . And I was fascinated by the brilliance of the site . However they were not. . This story gets so much better and scary .. It took me a while to shake it off and touch my phone iPad or computer and still cover my cameras . It went on fir a while and everything was so bizarre my keys on iPad and phone were like a rubberband and couldn't ever get to normal site ,.. Of course my Apple ID emails you name it were wrong every single day night .. I was losing it and feeling like where ever I was going and reading articles. .. I was getting hand slapped . And picking up on for one I stink at getting the clues by whoever ... Probably some 15 ye ass sitting in his room why his mom was calling him down for dinner. :: all fairness what kid would run down for dinner when he has the thrill and controlling my devices from his room and driving me to mental hospital. .. I could go on. But probably babbling so you think I'm nuts. .. I start watching OH yes all mighty private YouTube .. Not ! On hacking deep dark web yes all why putting kids to bed and old . But I coudnt shake the sense that someone was yes actually in my iPad and phone. .. So I wake up after reading all night and not sleeping for nights. .. Okay tech guys and girls. .. I have a brain teaser for you .. I wake up to "hey ' brand new restored wiped out fresh iPad and phone .. Gets better my friend Apple fairy care .. Is walking me through my settings to set up new email. Yes from inside my phone .. I'm so exhausted I actually follow right along ?? I know what everyone us thinking . So hear comes the grand finale! I put down everything and vow not to touch them as apple and bestbuy tell me can't happen. . Well I start reading the data okay yes that's nuts and went blind reading it all night not to mention I'm not code reader .. Oh but read enough and OMG I start reading putting thread together and Yikes so many personnel things about me that Apple doesn't write in their core .. Or could not know that I changed cable and talk to neighbor in panic and so many other personnel stuff. . Yes my phone was on sleep mode and yes it can be tapped and with FaceTime and cameras so on I was being even listen too . Well that night I pucked up my iPad and had the scare of my life .. I went to send son text and boom he .. She don't . Quickly put a link in my text and not going to say the website and I clicked on it what's to lose now ... And from there be thru over to weird utube video and from there lokked like google site like always and put in what took so long what is money , what time , what is brain. .. Than I was jail liocked out of my life .. iPad iPhone computer and since old mom watched utube .. The lock was exactly what I saw and a popular having app ... So I had to comment that yes there are some bored and some brilliant people in and on the web and yes I miss reading a book in private and nobody knows what I'm reading. Unfortunately I'm a critical thinker and it gave me a new respect for the geniuses or maybe it's jealousy . So now kids at school and I can't rest until I know everything about computers and believe me , it's so hard I think I could probably master swimming to Alaska and survive before I Learn the simple manners if the web. I still getting kicked out of one if my favorite sites ... I could read all day and night on that site , but I'm not getting the clues. I'm getting them I just don't know how to navigate to where I'm suppose to be. . Sorry so long .. I left out half of the story .

    Btw I love your website ... I think your geniuses and informative I can't get enough .. Obviously here I am right back on it ... Still cover my camera and emoji because he would smile and move my keys away from me when my passwords were wrong and smile when it was right .. Okay thinking at this time I might be thrown out of here .. Because I feel as crazy as it sounds. .. But sheesh I'm not ....YET
    Sorry so long had to share : thank you for your website knowledge :: losing it and a new respect for al,the tech savvy people more jealous

    • not stupid
      May 30, 2016 at 12:44 pm


  8. Eddie G.
    May 24, 2015 at 11:53 am

    This is not indicative of the entire populaton of the U.S. And I'm only defending them because I LIVE HERE! I was born and raised here and unlike the select few hapless fools that were selected for this project. I could have answered EVERY ONE of those questions with either the proper answer or as close to intelligence as possible. And I know that that guy Mr. Howard is NOT the PM of Australia! But I guess the examples given do show that more people are interested in their shiney new SUV / compact car/ new watch / iPod / iPad / Android device, than they are about keeping up with world evens and enriching their lives by reading!!

    • Bryan Clark
      June 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      It's certainly not meant to be indicative of the entire population of... well... anywhere. It's just meant to make you think, and discuss. The reality is, we don't know the answer and until there exists an all-encompassing way to measure intelligence, I'm not sure we ever will.

  9. Abu mena
    May 23, 2015 at 1:52 am

    It takes a lot of scientific and philosophical efforts to define intelligence, but it is impossible to do the same with stupidity.

    • Bryan Clark
      June 4, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      I don't believe that we're at a point where we can adequately measure intelligence. And stupidity? Well, that's pretty qualitative as well. Ask 10 people, you'll probably get 7 difference answers as to what "stupid" is.

      • Forrest
        February 1, 2016 at 2:04 pm

        Stupid is as stupid does

  10. Amit Si
    May 21, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Just reminds me of the movie "Idiocracy". Its creators seemed to have forseen these challenges.

    • Bryan Clark
      May 21, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      I think back to that movie at least a couple times a day. It's amazing how accurate some things seem. And don't forget, drink your Brawndo... it's got electrolytes.

  11. Tony
    May 21, 2015 at 2:51 am

    I have long maintained that before the internet, idiocy was pretty much local (e.g. the village idiot)...well, with the exception of politicians (and even then we still had statesmen who led rather than sheep who followed the polls/money). Now idiocy is out there for the world to see. It also used to be that if you had one of those "idiot moments" that we all have, it was confined to a small circle of people and it seldom went farther afield.

    I can only imagine that it's not going to improve.

    • Bryan Clark
      May 21, 2015 at 4:07 am

      Yeah, I can't see the problem getting any smaller. I think you hit the nail on the head about the amplification of our idiot moments.

  12. Juan E
    May 20, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Aren't you (to the author) being another troll luring people into thinking they are discussing a smart topic? So you can enjoy our dumbness arise.
    Well I guess you put out couple of valid points like complexity of intelligence and its dependence on perception.

    • Bryan Clark
      May 21, 2015 at 5:01 pm

      I'm genuinely interested in what people think. I was disappointed that I had to leave the post with a non-conclusive answer (by my own doing, not anything editorial), so I was anxious to see what others thought.

  13. dragonmouth
    May 20, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    "Are We Getting Dumber?"
    The question cannot be answered based on the information provided. The salient terms in the article (intelligence, smart, dumb, idiot, troll, stupid) are being used in their colloquial vernacular and therefore are hard to quantify. Just because one does not speak Polish is one dumber than a Polack? Is a person with an IQ of 180 who does not matching socks "stupid" or "dumb"? Is a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon who lacks social graces "stupid" or "dumb"? Is someone who votes for an unpopular candidate "stupid" or "dumb"?

    "Or Is Stupidity Just More Visible Online?"
    If you consider anyone who does not share your opinion as "dumb" or stupid" or a "troll" then, YES, stupidity is more visible online. Also the anonymity of the Internet lets people make statements they would not make in a face to face conversation for fear of getting punched.

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 11:09 pm

      Valid. Opinion should always be valued in an effort to better understand those around you.

      Now, on to your point... I don't think it's a matter of trying to quantify those with a genius IQ in this case, or point the finger at those that are still unsure of how to make toast. I think the question is whether the societal mean is on an upward or downward trend.

    • dragonmouth
      May 21, 2015 at 12:33 am

      "I think the question is whether the societal mean is on an upward or downward trend."
      That is my point. We cannot determine the direction of the trend without first rigorously defining our terms. If the Woodley Study and the Kings College Study, which were conducted by professionals, disagree, how can we amateurs come up with a definitive answer?

      "Why Are There So Many Idiots on the Internet?"
      According to the scientific definition, there are NO "idiots" on the Internet. An "idiot" is a no longer used term for someone with an IQ of 0-25. As such, they lack the ability to communicate with others, let alone use a computer to access the Internet. The question should be "Why do so many people on the Internet give the impression of being mentally retarded?" Yes, I am yanking your chain a bit. :-)

    • Bryan Clark
      May 21, 2015 at 1:14 am

      That's why the conclusion was left rather inconclusive. I agree. It's hard to side one way or another when, in reality, it could be something else entirely. There are so many factors at play that it's not an apples-to-apples comparison between now and 100 years ago.

      Yanking my chain? You? C'mon... nonsense. :-)

  14. Robert Brown
    May 20, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    I've heard and read dissertations on 'ancient peoples' who left no intelligence, nor readable records. IS THAT US??

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 11:02 pm

      Probably not, but who really knows? We'll leave some amazing Vine videos at the very least.

  15. Andrew
    May 20, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    Yes. Problem solving is most certainly eroding, not to mention common sense which has taken a nosedive over the last few decades. More and more you see the youth today reaching for their smart (dumb) phone for an answer that should be a simple matter of common sense, heaven forbid they should think for themselves any more. I guess its too much like work.

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 9:01 pm

      I think that's the catch-22 in a device that is as reliant on mobile devices as we are. We have easy access to the answer for just about anything, but because of this, we're more apt to use it - thus further eroding our problem solving abilities.

      Great point, Andrew.

  16. Jason
    May 20, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    I agree with the writers opinion which is based of facts. The perception of intelligence has greatly changed over the last 50 years or so. I do believe the ability to solve a problem which at one point in time was the cornerstone of intelligence has dissolved for the most part. Things had not been created as of yet and those who were able to figure it out were almost idolized. Example is Henry Ford

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 8:31 pm

      I think problem solving skills are eroding as well. It's never more apparent to me than it is watching my pre-teen son go through a melt down when I tell him to "look it up" rather than answering his questions.

    • Kristin
      May 20, 2015 at 9:17 pm

      My dad made us look up everything - with Encyclopedias. The actual books. Because there was no Google. Man, life was hard

    • dragonmouth
      May 20, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      Maybe he already tried to "look it up" but was successful in arriving at an answer so he asks someone who supposedly has all the answers, you, his father. He expects an answer to his question, not an annoying equivocation. :-)

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 11:01 pm

      I suppose that's possible. It's also possible that I've known him for 12 years and can tell the difference.

    • Kristin
      May 20, 2015 at 11:27 pm

      I'm guessing you don't have kids dragonmouth. They always want the easiest path.

    • dragonmouth
      May 21, 2015 at 12:36 am

      You guess wrong, Kristin. I have two. And it is not only kids that want the easiest path. Most people do.

    • dragonmouth
      May 21, 2015 at 12:37 am

      There was a phrase in the 1960s that drove me crazy "Look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls"

    • Bryan Clark
      May 21, 2015 at 1:15 am

      It might have driven you crazy, but you have to admit that it made you better at figuring out the solution to problems with minimal assistance, yes?

    • dragonmouth
      May 21, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      I don't know if it was because of nurture or nature but I was always inquisitive. According to my mother, I took apart an iron with my bare hands when I was two or so. I don't think Funk & Wagnall's was much help. and no, I did not put the iron back together.

      I've been tearing things down and rebuilding them since. For most of my work career, I did stress-testing of software. My job was to break it before it went into production. :-)

    • Bryan Clark
      May 21, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      But, when tearing down the iron, you couldn't go to your mother for help, right? So, by default you had to figure it out on your own, which is the kind of thing that leads to increased ability to solve problems.

  17. Kristin
    May 20, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    I am sure I did and said a million and one dumb things as a teenager but without the internet no one remembers. Especially not the pot-heads I used to hang with

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      That's definitely a contributing factor. The always-on nature of society catches and archives all of our dumb moments now.

  18. jb89149
    May 20, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    The movie Idiocracy was prophetic.

    • Adrian
      May 20, 2015 at 6:57 pm

      You beat me to it.

    • Bryan Clark
      May 20, 2015 at 6:57 pm

      I tend to agree. Oddly enough, I learned that "The Woodley Study" mentioned above was essentially the basis for this move - dumb people reproducing faster than intelligent ones.