Are We Getting Less Smart?

I’m generally inclined to think that things have been getting better, that there has been some progress. But a new study means I’d better re-examine my assumptions.

Reaction times – a reliable marker of general intelligence – have declined steadily since the Victorian era from about 183 milliseconds to 250ms in men, and from 187ms to 277ms in women.

The slowing of our reflexes points to a decrease in general intelligence equivalent to 1.23 IQ points per decade since the 1880s or about 14 IQ points overall, researchers said.

That’s a significant decline — one standard deviation.

Actual IQ scores from different decades cannot be directly compared because people today enjoy better teaching, health and nutrition which would help improve their results, the scientists explained.

So, what does that mean for the so-called Flynn effect?

But the reaction times signify that the genetic component of general intelligence – which leads to the type of creativity and invention typical of the Victorian era – has been dwindling over the past century.

Dr Michael Woodley, who led the study published in the Intelligence journal this month, identified the trend by comparing reaction times from trials conducted by Victorian scientists against those carried out in recent decades.

A simple but brilliant idea for research.

Our declining intelligence is most likely down to a “reverse” in the process of natural selection, he explained. The most intelligent people now have fewer children on average than in previous decades, while there are higher survival rates among people with less favourable genes.

“The pressures of modern life, a nine-to-five modern lifestyle, have created all these pressures against very smart people having break-even numbers of children,” he said.

Makes one wonder if, instead of steady advancement, we have seen a great cycle of increase then peak and decrease.


Nick Collins, “The Victorians were smarter than us, study suggestsDaily Telegraph


1 Comment

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One response to “Are We Getting Less Smart?

  1. I have a habit of reading antebellum and colonial newspapers when the mood hits me, and I have often thought “the average American reader in 1830 was just a lot smarter than the average reader today” – and back then the % of Americans who read the newspaper was much higher than today! (America was the world’s most literate society for the first 300 years of its history.)

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