There’s a reason it feels as if all the people around you are getting dumber: They are. A study published this month in the journal Intelligence found that American IQs are dropping for the first time in ages. An analysis of 394,378 scores on intelligence tests taken between 2006 and 2018 showed that IQs had fallen in every category except for spatial reasoning. In logic and vocabulary, computation and mathematics, and visual problem-solving and analogies, scores dropped. This reverses the so-called Flynn effect, which previously described a steady rise in IQ since 1932. And the slide was steepest among 18- to 22-year-olds, which is particularly alarming, as intelligence researchers usually expect younger generations to have better IQ scores than older ones.
Popular culture likes to portray obtuseness as a congenital American trait, with Idiocracy as the inevitable end point of brute democratic capitalism. Despite appearances, however, the U.S. is only the most recent developed nation to experience the reverse Flynn effect, following a slew of European countries that have become less brainy.
We’re still smart enough to know that high IQ is correlated with economic success and productivity, so the finding—along with our recent drop in life-expectancy for two straight years—is cause for concern.
What’s going on? The study doesn’t say, but there are all sorts of theories. Dysgenic fertility, a straightforward evolutionary explanation, holds that less intelligent people are having more children and bringing down the average. But a 2018 study out of Norway (which beat us to the great dumbing-down) found IQ scores dropping within families and not just throughout society. This coincides with data showing that the children and grandchildren of high-IQ American immigrants see their scores regress toward the national mean. Another popular theory is that a boom in low-skilled jobs has facilitated a withering of cognitive abilities. Deteriorating quality of education is naturally another culprit, boosted by the fact that younger Americans’ IQs are falling more dramatically than those of older ones. There’s even an environmental argument that climate change is making food less nutritious and starving our brains, the catastrophic rise in obesity rates notwithstanding.
The cause here is probably multi-factored and incorporates some of the elements mentioned above (though not climate change). Here’s another one: Human cognition flourishes in response to conquerable challenges, and developed societies are running out of problems that are solvable. That’s not to say everything is perfect. Rather, it’s that in the United States and swaths of Europe, we’ve largely dealt with the systemic issues that have plagued human beings since the birth of ancient societies. Namely: securing food, clothes, shelter, and work for most of the populace. And we’ve gone beyond that, minimizing not only adversity but, for growing portions of the citizenry, inconvenience, too. According to Pew, 93 percent of American adults use the Internet, a world of no-waiting and clickable access to a bounty of information, goods, services, and experiences. Fast food, hated as it may be, is a ubiquitous source of low-price, high-caloric, and tasty nourishment. We’re down to dealing with the eternal problems of pre-history: natural catastrophe, ineradicable illness, the unequal distribution of God-given potential, and, above all else, human fallibility in its endless variations. There will be no comprehensive breakthroughs on these fronts. Much of our effort to address them, therefore, amounts to the rehearsing of pet theories. With fewer problems to actually solve, and ever more sources of distraction and amusement, our higher thinking atrophies.
But there will always be statistical outliers at the high-IQ tail of the curve, men and women who are compelled to learn, analyze, and innovate. This leaves the prospect of a looming IQ gap, with a small group of awe-inspiring wizards at the top and a larger pool of average IQs that continue to drop over generations. What might this look like in practical terms? An intelligence elite that imposes innovations—good and bad—on a population ever less equipped to assess them. It’s a particularly scary prospect mostly because it feels as if it’s already started. Think of what Justice Elena Kagan said last month during oral arguments in a case set to determine whether Youtube is responsible for harms inflicted by its viewers. “We are a court—we really don’t know about these things. We are not, like, the nine greatest experts on the Internet.” And she’s a Supreme Court justice. What about the rest of us? The truth is that no one really knows about these things except those who create them. How are we to make sense of ChatGPT and other generative AI programs that supposedly threaten to take over our problem-solving functions altogether? Perhaps the good news is that if these and other technologies create a new class of widespread problems to replace the old ones, we may see the Flynn effect assert itself again.