Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’


As is now well-known, scores on “intelligence” tests rose strongly over the last few generations, world-wide – this is the “Flynn Effect.” One striking anomaly, however, appears in American data: slumping students’ scores on academic achievement tests like the SAT. Notes of the decline starting in the 1960s sparked a lot of concern and hand-wringing. A similar decline is evident among adult respondents to the General Social Survey. The GSS gives interviewees a 10-item, multiple choice vocabulary test. (Practically speaking, vocabulary tests yield pretty much the same results as intelligence tests.) In over 40 years of the survey, a pattern emerged: Correct scores rose from the generations born around 1900 to the generations born around 1950 and then dropped afterwards. Are recently-born cohorts dumber – or, at least, less literate – than their parents and grandparents?

A new study presented to the American Sociological Association in August [published version, 2016, here] by Shawn Dorius (Iowa State), Duane Alwin (Penn. State), and Juliana Pacheco (U. of Iowa) tested a hunch several researchers have had about the generational pattern in the GSS vocabulary test – that words have histories.


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Getting Smarter

“Human nature” appears to be one of the few constants in a world of rapid social change. We assume that an American transported from, say, 1900 would have pretty much the same character, instincts, impulses, and mind as an American today. But on at least one important dimension of human nature, there is considerable evidence of major and rapid change in the last century: cognitive skills. In a recent column for the Boston Review — linked here — I expand an earlier blog post on how people seem to have been getting “smarter” over recent generations.

Update (12/11/17)

In a 2017 article, James Flynn and Michael Shayer report evidence that intelligence test scores may be dropping in northern Europe since about the turn of the century (but not–so far– in the U.S.). The changes are complex and vary by kind of test and vary by specific age groups. But, it may be, the authors suggest, that the sorts of social developments that encouraged cognitive development in the general population over the twentieth century have played out. Also, new developments, such as reduced need for some sorts of cognitive skills thanks to new technologies, may weaken the cognitive growth that comes from cognitive demands. At a broader level, the authors point out that what is similar for both the growth and now seeming stall of test scores is how they respond to very particular social conditions. (6/13/18:  And see here for further analysis.)

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We’re All Geniuses

Old professors – and old non-professors, too – often complain about the younger generation’s illiteracy and philistinism. They sure don’t read newspapers as we did and they often can’t tell the difference between the world wars as we can. One study calculated that vocabulary knowledge – highly correlated with intelligence test scores – has declined since peaking with the generation born in the 1940s. (My gang!)

Yet, there’s much nostalgia and some bias here. (The vocabulary test was designed by people largely in that 1940s generation.) Considerable research on tests of all sorts suggests that, contrary to we geezer’s complaints,

Source: Wilderdom.com via Creative Commons

Americans have been getting more “intelligent” over the generations. But those findings, in turn, require us to confront what we mean by “intelligent” and to ask whether Americans today are wiser than their great-grandparents.


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