Smarter or Dumber: How We Evaluate Our Intelligence

Have you ever wondered—are people getting smarter or dumber over time? Are we really evolving into more intelligent human beings, or not? And if we are, how do you explain the poor behavior many intelligent people might exhibit from time to time?

I actually think it’s a good question.

The fact is, IQ scores are on a dramatic rise over the centuries. It’s called the “Flynn Effect,” named after Dr. James Flynn, a New Zealand researcher who’s studied the phenomenon throughout his career. You don’t have to look far to see evidence that modern humans have much more going on in their brains than our ancestors did, including computers, heart transplants, data analytics and more. IQ scores show a rise of about 3 IQ points per decade. By this measure, we are smarter than ever.

Well, sort of.

“While IQ scores are rising at a remarkable rate, humans’ underlying genetic potential for smarts could be on the decline, a new study suggests. The research found that by one measure of intelligence, the Victorians” were superior to our generation.

To be clear, intelligence can be measured in a variety of ways. As many have noted, “the findings aren’t without controversy—particularly whether or not the measurements used really reveal intelligence. Still, the study highlights the trouble with measuring intelligence over time: Smarts aren’t defined as just one thing. What makes a person clever on the African Savannah could be nearly useless in the financial centers of Hong Kong.”

How Do We Ensure We Are Improving?


Examining all we know about “smarts” reveals we’re advancing in these ways:

  • Today we are conditioned to think more abstractly.
  • Today we are conditioned to look for patterns.
  • Today we are conditioned to react to stimuli faster.
  • Today we are conditioned to consume more information.
  • Today we are conditioned to process and file data rapidly.

For instance, if you were to read a Sunday edition of the New York Times newspaper, you would be reading the same amount of information that a person would consume if they lived the entire 19th century. It’s incredible.

All of this, however, is not without its consequences. Because we’re consuming so much, we can grow weary of all the processing; we can filter out some important information and we can be impulsive in our decision making—instead of methodical and wise. According to a new study, 82% of middle school students can’t tell the difference between sponsored content and a real news article. In essence, we can be more intelligent but act more stupid. We are both smarter and dumber.

And do we not see this in our society today?

For example, I marveled at the childish behavior—from both political parties—when I watched followers of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton prior to the election. I was embarrassed as I spoke to educators in Singapore that week, trying to explain why Americans acted this way—even though most of us are civilized and well-educated. Is this progress? Is our civilization smarter than those past?

Six Questions to Ask Ourselves as We Build Intelligent Graduates:

1. How can we teach them to be focused without being obsessed?

“A dull person has just as quick a peak reaction time as a brilliant person,” James Flynn said in an interview with LiveScience. “The difference is that someone with a low IQ typically can’t stay focused and so their reaction times won’t be consistent throughout an experiment; their scores vary more widely than those of high-IQ people.”

2. Can we foster free thought yet ensure change leads to moral progress?

Progress means change but not all change means progress. We must instill a moral compass inside students to guide, guard and gauge their choices. C. S. Lewis said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road. In that case, the man who turns back the soonest is the one who is most progressive.”

3. Can we help them balance two opposite ideas and see them objectively?

F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This is what enables students to be civilized and wise as they make decisions for themselves, their families and their communities. This is the essence of true critical thinking: The ability to weigh and evaluate all data.

4. Can we be disciplined to listen before we speak and reject the impulse to only think about what we’ll say next?

This one’s tough. Especially since we live in a day of impulsive social media messaging, little critical thought and our innate human need to be heard. We are not a patient population, and I am usually guilty of pondering what I will say in reaction to the person I am speaking with, rather than really listening to their ideas.

5. What must we do to produce graduates who are life-long learners?

Far too often, people finish school and never read another book in their lifetime. They stop seeking, discovering and learning, at least on purpose. Ours is a day of rapid change; we cannot afford to remain “stuck” in thought patterns that may be irrelevant in the future. We must build curious grads who know how to research, identify what’s important and make changes to faulty perspectives.

6. How can we equip students to be both timely and timeless?

Too often, we can assume that a value or virtue from the past is automatically antiquated. I don’t buy that—honesty will always be valuable; discipline will always be valuable. The question is: can we prepare students for jobs that may not exist today, but thoroughly equip them to carry these timeless values with them into the future?

Let’s work to ensure our intelligence translates into wisdom. This means we hear and digest information and learn to “eat the fish and spit out the bones.” Aristotle said it first, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

This piece is a taste of my new book, Marching Off the Map, published this spring.

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Smarter or Dumber: How We Evaluate Our Intelligence