The New York Times just published an interesting debate asking "Are People Getting Dumber?"
James Flynn says that we are now "thinking in more sophisticated ways," Steven Pinker claims that "we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment," and Linda Gottfredson argues that "modern innovations make us feel dumber, because they add to the work our minds must do."
This last point made by Gottfredson I find particularly interesting because it could be the reason why we think—in Nicholas Carr's famous words—that Google is making us stupid. Perhaps we feel that Google or modern technology is making us stupid because every new program or device adds another layer of problem solving that our minds must attend to.
In other words, the smartest people just keep making life more complicated for us by creating more complicated laws, marketing schemes, computer programs, and digital devices.
Some of my research with my colleague Martha Putallaz using the Duke University Talent Identification Program database actually suggests that the rise of our digital culture may in fact be one of the factors responsible for the increase in IQ scores among the smart fraction of the population.
The Flynn effect is the fairly monotonic rise in IQ scores across the last several decades. In our article The Flynn Effect Puzzle we demonstrated for the first time that the smartest people are in fact getting smarter along with everyone else. This means that the entire curve is rising.
The rise of the smart fraction is likely the reason why Pinker observes we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment. But what might explain why the smart are getting smarter?
The honest answer is that we just don't know for sure. However, the IQ gains in our study showed up mainly on the nonverbal reasoning sections, suggesting that the mental muscles of the smart fraction that appear to be getting stronger are the nonverbal or visual ones.
This, in turn, would suggest that the rising complexity of video games, computer programs, and digital devices may be one explanation for the rise in IQ for all of us, but perhaps more likely to be a cause among the very smartest people.
Which I find a bit ironic, because this means that the very smartest people who are inventing things like the iPhone or Facebook and are complicating the lives of everyone else might simultaneously be making themselves even smarter through the very things that they create.
So the next time you pick up your smartphone, just remember that you actually might be getting smarter. And you have some of those super smart people to thank for making your life more complicated each and every day.
© 2012 by Jonathan Wai