Are We Getting Dumber? Or Is Stupidity Just More Visible Online?
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 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 .
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 . 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.
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 , but it seems to be dwindling.
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 . 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.