We’re getting more stupid. That’s one point made in a recent article in the New Scientist, reporting on a gradual decline in IQs in developed countries such as the UK, Australia and the Netherlands. Such research feeds into a long-held fascination with testing human intelligence. Yet such debates are too focused on IQ as a life-long trait that can’t be changed. Other research is beginning to show the opposite.
The concept of testing intelligence was first successfuly devised by French psychologists in the early 1900s to help describe differences in how well and quickly children learn at school. But it is now frequently used to explain that difference – that we all have a fixed and inherent level of intelligence that limits how fast we can learn.
Defined loosely, intelligence refers to our ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations. IQ tests measure our vocabulary, our ability to problem-solve, reason logically and so on.
But what many people fail to understand is that if IQ tests measured only our skills at these particular tasks, no one would be interested in our score. The score is interesting only because it is thought to be fixed for life.Who is getting smarter?
Standardised IQ tests used by clinical psychologists for diagnostic purposes, such as the Weschler scale, are designed in such a way that it is not easy to prepare for them. The contents are kept surprisingly secret and they are changed regularly. The score given for an individual is a relative one, adjusted based on the performance of people of the same age.
But even as we become better educated and more skillful at the types of tasks measured on IQ tests (a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect”, after James Fylnn who first noted it) our IQs stay pretty much the same. This is because the IQ scoring system takes into account the amount of improvement expected over time, and then discounts it. This type of score is called a “standardised score” – it hides your true score and merely represents your standing in relation to your peers who have also been getting smarter at about the same rate.
This apparent stability in IQ scores makes intelligence look relatively constant, whereas in fact we are all becoming more intelligent across and within our lifetimes. The IQ test and the IQ scoring system are constantly adjusted to ensure that the average IQ remains at 100, despite a well-noted increase in intellectual ability worldwide.