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Are people getting smarter or dumber? Yes.
The Flynn effect shows people have gotten smarter, but some research claims those IQ gains are regressing. Can both be right?
- Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
- Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
- Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
Are people getting smarter or dumber? It seems an easy enough question to answer. Researchers look at IQ tests; see if scores go up, down, or sideways; and report their findings. You, in turn, google the question and read an article detailing said findings.
Perform such a search, however, and you will net a surprising amount of contradictory claims. Many, many, many headlines maintain that people today are more acute than ever. Yet many, many, many others assert that recent decades have blunted humanity's mental tools. And each claim is based on studies, surveys, and all the science.
Which is correct? Before we answer that, we need to figure out what exactly the so-called Flynn effect tells us about the intellectual gains of the 20th century.
The Flynn effect: how people got smarter
In the 1980s philosopher James Flynn noticed that IQ tests were occasionally renormed. The average IQ must stand at 100, but every few years, scores would creep up, and test makers had to add tougher questions to bring the average back down. Flynn crunched the numbers and found that IQ scores had increased, on average, three points per decade. The phenomenon was named the Flynn effect in his honor.
"The implications are stunning," developmental psychologist Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature. "An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have had an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have had an IQ of 130, besting 98 percent of his or her contemporaries. Yes, you read that right: if we take the Flynn effect at face value, a typical person today is smarter than 98 percent of the people in the good old days of 1910."
Of course, Pinker quickly points out, we can't take the Flynn effect at face value. People living in 1910 weren't blithering fools who couldn't wrap their heads around calculus or believed the Earth to be flat. Nor did evolution genetically reengineer our mental software in a mere century.
Rather, the industrialized environments of the 20th century required people to use and think in abstract terms more frequently than previous generations. Not coincidentally, IQ tests such as Raven's Progressive Matrices measure one's ability to think abstractly and apply that ability toward new problems (i.e., one's fluid knowledge).
Pinker provides a telling example. Consider a similarities problem that asks, "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?" The answer is obvious; they are mammals. But in 1900, an average person was likely to answer, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." This isn't wrong. The answer elucidates a concrete relationship between the two. It's just not the abstract classification that IQ tests look for.
"So, modernity has essentially changed the way we think, to make us better at using broad abstract concepts and applying them to situations that are unfamiliar to us," journalist David Epstein told Big Think. "And it's not to say that one type of thinking is better than the other. That's certainly not the case. [We're] just adapted to different conditions."
The gains haven't been equal in all types of knowledge. As Pinker notes, matrices and similarities have increased by leaps and bounds since 1950; however, arithmetic, vocabulary, and information (i.e., crystallized knowledge) have seen the fewest overall gains. In other words, today we are much better at recognizing patterns in geometric shapes, but only slightly better at remembering the capital of Switzerland. (Or that the latter is a trick question.)
Are we losing intelligence gains?
But the Flynn effect may now be regressing. According to recent studies, the populaces of several countries are essentially bleeding IQ points. One eye-catching example came out of Norway last year.
Norway practices mandatory military service, and conscripted men are required to take an IQ test, which provides researchers with a wealth of data. Brent Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg, at the Ragnar Frische Centre for Economic Research in Oslo, analyzed more than 730,000 of these IQ tests, and their results showed 1975 to be the tipping point for Norway's Flynn effect. The country's IQ scores have tumbled downhill since.
It's worth noting that this decline is not necessarily endemic among Norway's entire population. Though the study had a large sample size, it only looked at native-born men, 18–19 years old, and whose parents were also native born. Men of other ages or parental makeup were not accounted for, nor did the study look at women's IQ at any age. (While Norway practices universal conscription today, the law wasn't extended until 2013, so data on women were not available.)
Even so, Norway's dip is part of a larger trend. An analysis out of the University of Otago, written by James Flynn and Michael Shayer, looked at intelligence research in various countries. While the declines were not uniform, they were certainly present in the data, particularly among European countries.
Flynn and Shayer found that Nordic nations — namely Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — will lose an overall average of 6.85 IQ points (projected over 30 years). The Netherlands showed losses at high school but gains in adults and no change in preschoolers. Germany maintained verbal gains but lost spatial points. Interestingly, Britain showed slight gains on Raven's Progressive Matrices but losses on Piagetian tests, another test measuring a test taker's analytic ability.
"Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity," the authors write. "They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset?"
In other countries, the Flynn effect remains in effect. The Unites States continues to gain at the historic rate, while South Korea is gaining at twice that. Flynn and Shayer also believe that developing countries will continue to show gains for some time.
Did smart people dumb down their environment?
What has caused the current slump in IQ scores among some European nations? Researchers aren't sure, but they have some hypotheses.
One hypothesis blames dysgenic fertility. Dysgenics postulates that negative traits can accumulate in a population if not weeded out by selection pressures. In the case of intelligence, the idea goes that above-average couples have fewer children than those who are below average; therefore, there are fewer intelligent children to pass on their smarty genes. The Flynn effect masked this reality until the inevitable ceiling was hit. It is exactly the setup for Idiocracy.
But Bratsberg and Rogeberg push against the dysgenic hypothesis. Their results show Norway's negative trends occurring within families as well as across them. For this same reason, the researchers don't believe immigration is a major factor either. They argue in-family environmental effects are the most likely culprit, though they cannot weed out particular causes and effects. Possibilities include changes in educational exposure, worsening nutrition, and changes in media exposure.
Flynn and Shayer also provide some possibilities. They point out that Scandinavian countries support more advanced educational systems. These education systems may have reached a theoretical limit in their ability "to produce graduates that can generalize and use logic on the hypothetical (mental abilities that pay dividends on IQ tests)."
Scandinavian welfare states may have also leveled the educational attainment between citizens of different classes so quality education reaches every child. This could explain the U.S.'s continued gains, as students in poorer areas continue to play catch up with their upper-class peers.
Societies escalated skill requirements in the 20th century. That environment caused IQs to rise. Conversely, Flynn and Shayer note, if 21st-century societies lessen skill requirements, IQ scores will backpedal.
But the question of whether our IQ scores are higher than another society's, whether historical or contemporary, isn't what truly matters. It's whether we've developed societies that support and foster our many different intelligences wisely and purposefully. As Flynn and Shayer point out: "Capitalizing on a people's intelligence, rather than worrying about their intelligence, is the most important thing."
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So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.