Friday, May 13, 2005

Are we getting smarter? Why?

It is well known that raw scores on IQ tests have been increasing at a rate of what would be about 3 IQ points per decade (the so-called Flynn effect). This means that, were the result of the test not rescaled so that the average is 100 by definition, the average IQ would have risen to 130 over the last century - i.e., the average person today scores better than all but 2 percent or so of the population in 1900. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this effect and its possible causes in this week's New Yorker, reviewing a new book claiming that modern society, with its fast-paced multimedia entertainment (including video games, computers, TV, etc.) actually improves our cognitive skills.

Gladwell: "Twenty years ago, a political philosopher named James Flynn uncovered a curious fact. Americans—at least, as measured by I.Q. tests—were getting smarter. This fact had been obscured for years, because the people who give I.Q. tests continually recalibrate the scoring system to keep the average at 100. But if you took out the recalibration, Flynn found, I.Q. scores showed a steady upward trajectory, rising by about three points per decade, which means that a person whose I.Q. placed him in the top ten per cent of the American population in 1920 would today fall in the bottom third. Some of that effect, no doubt, is a simple by-product of economic progress: in the surge of prosperity during the middle part of the last century, people in the West became better fed, better educated, and more familiar with things like I.Q. tests. But, even as that wave of change has subsided, test scores have continued to rise—not just in America but all over the developed world. What’s more, the increases have not been confined to children who go to enriched day-care centers and private schools. The middle part of the curve—the people who have supposedly been suffering from a deteriorating public-school system and a steady diet of lowest-common-denominator television and mindless pop music—has increased just as much. What on earth is happening? In the wonderfully entertaining “Everything Bad Is Good for You” (Riverhead; $23.95), Steven Johnson proposes that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture.

...As Johnson points out, television is very different now from what it was thirty years ago. It’s harder. A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture. The extraordinary amount of money now being made in the television aftermarket—DVD sales and syndication—means that the creators of television shows now have an incentive to make programming that can sustain two or three or four viewings.

...It doesn’t seem right, of course, that watching “24” or playing a video game could be as important cognitively as reading a book. Isn’t the extraordinary success of the “Harry Potter” novels better news for the culture than the equivalent success of “Grand Theft Auto III”? Johnson’s response is to imagine what cultural critics might have said had video games been invented hundreds of years ago, and only recently had something called the book been marketed aggressively to children: (Johnson) Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. . . .

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . . This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.

He’s joking, of course, but only in part. The point is that books and video games represent two very different kinds of learning. When you read a biology textbook, the content of what you read is what matters. Reading is a form of explicit learning. When you play a video game, the value is in how it makes you think. Video games are an example of collateral learning, which is no less important."


Anonymous said...

Flynn and Dickens have a plausible model of why world IQs are increasing.

One thing to note about their model is that they invoke gene/environment interactions.

The usual debate about "N% genes, 100 - N% environment" is silly because there's no reason to think IQ should follow the standard, coarse addivive model.

Steve Hsu said...

Yes, it is seems unavoidable that interaction between genes and environment plays a big role. Environment is the only thing varying in the Flynn effect, as the distribution of genes has not changed much in the last 100 years.

MadJock said...

The average is increasing, but where is the gain coming from? Given the same scoring, how would the distribution curves compare across the decades?

Is everyone getting equally smarter? Or are previously neglected groups being educated now in a way they weren't, raising the results at the lower end of the scale, leaving the top end untouched. Or are they just as dumb and left behind while computers, internet, and access to eduction in middle and upper class areas propels the above average even further?

I don't buy that we're just getting smarter as a species, not this quickly. Does anyone really believe that the 50th percentile child born today should be on a par with the 98th percentile child from 1905, or that the 80th percentile child today trumps Edison, Einstein, or Maxwell?

Anonymous said...


Read the abstract to the Flynn and Dickens paper.

Jennifer said...

Yeah. We're getting skinnier too. Hahaha

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