Skip to main content

Tests say Americans becoming more intelligent over the generations. How could that be?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | October 29, 2010

Old professors – and old non-professors, too – often complain about the younger generation’s illiteracy and philistinism. They sure don’t read newspapers as we did and they often can’t tell the difference between the world wars as we can. One study calculated that vocabulary knowledge – highly correlated with intelligence test scores – has declined since peaking with the generation born in the 1940s. (My gang!)


Source: via Creative Commons

Yet, there’s much nostalgia and some bias here. (The vocabulary test was designed by people largely in that 1940s generation.) Considerable research on tests of all sorts suggests that, contrary to we geezer’s complaints, Americans have been getting more “intelligent” over the generations. But those findings, in turn, require us to confront what we mean by “intelligent” and to ask whether Americans today are wiser than their great-grandparents.

Get Smart and Smarter

Researchers have compared scores on so-called “intelligence” tests, particularly tests that measure how well test-takers answer abstract problems, of Americans today to the scores of Americans of who took similar tests decades ago. In general, contemporary Americans – and westerners in general – score higher  than did people in the early- and mid-twentieth century. (For why I say “so-called ‘intelligence tests’,” see Chs. 2 & 3 of this.) Indeed, there have been “massive gains” in scores over the twentieth century. This increase has been called the “Flynn Effect” after the scholar who first noted it. The upward surge appears to have leveled off more recently, but the long-term change is dramatic. (For a sample of readings, see James Flynn’s book here, and these sources: here and here.) The score of the average American test-taker in 2000 would have qualified him or her as a “genius” a few generations earlier.

The rise in scores shows up most in the most abstract tests of cognition, such as the one illustrated below. The task is to choose the pattern that logically belongs in the last box, given the sequence of the patterns before it. Why do more recent cohorts do so much better than earlier ones on such cognitive tests?


Source: Ravens Matrices via Wikipedia

One explanation that I like is this one: Over the years, more Americans have become more extensively “trained” – knowingly or not – in the cognitive skills these tests measure, such as reading and decoding visual abstractions. Consider how modern children learn to “get” the alternating perspectives and visual meanings in television, video games, commercial logos, traffic signals, and the like.  They can also manipulate numbers at a complexity beyond the educated adults of earlier generations. And modern children encounter far more writing, from schoolbooks to billboards to Facebook entries, than their ancestors did. Americans today are in this sense “smarter,” because much more complex environments have exercised and molded their brains to perform such abstract tasks.

Another sort of explanation stresses improved health and nutrition, particularly in the womb and early in life. Not just sufficient calories, but sufficient nutrients like iodine and Vitamin C, are critical to growing minds (see, e.g., here.) Similarly, exposure to toxins, notably to lead in old paint and gasoline, reduces children’s cognitive skills. Thus, improved nutrition and health over the 20th century could explain some or all of the increase.

Certainly important, too, is the vast increase in schooling that Americans got over the 20th century – an explanation Flynn himself stresses. Going to school does many things – including keeping kids off the streets and teaching them self-control – but it also trains young minds to decipher abstract symbols (like the letters in “symbol”) and make logical connections (like connecting the ideas linked by “and”). In 1900, about one-fifth of Americans had graduated high school; in 2000, more than four-fifths had. However much we may grumble about schools “these days,” public education clearly multiplied Americans’ capacity for abstract thinking.

But did all these developments make modern Americans wiser?


Here is a question raised by University of Virginia psychologist Tim Salthouse:  Since young people are so much “smarter” than old people (scores on standard “intelligence” tests keep sinking after one’s twenties), why do we entrust our institutions – courts, corporations, the military, universities, and so on – to 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds rather than to 20-somethings? Perhaps we should defer to the youngsters (my kids might say so), but people apparently assume that mature, even elderly, adults make better decisions on fateful matters. For example, the Constitution says that Thomas Jefferson would have been too young to be president in the same year that he was assigned to draft the Declaration of Independence. The “wisdom” of the Founding Fathers presumably was to not trust anyone under 35 to run the country.

What has happened to the wisdom – not just the “smarts” – of Americans over the generations? I may have missed it, but I don’t think there is any research on historical trends in wisdom – even over just recent decades (although there is a growing literature on psychology of wisdom – e.g., here). We do not seem to have stable indicators of wisdom that can be tracked over time.

Still, it might be worth a thought experiment: What if we time-transported a random sample of, say, 18th- or 19th-century Americans to compare to contemporary Americans ? (No fair cherry-picking the ancestors. You can’t choose Jefferson, Franklin, and company to face off against a random draw of today’s Americans.) What if we gave them psychological tests of wisdom, questions which ask people how to solve real-world problems like family disputes, hurt feelings among friends, or economic crises? Who would do better? And, what if we could – this is a thought experiment, after all – give them the levels of education, the access to accumulated knowledge in advice books and the like, perhaps even access to the Internet that Americans today have? Who would do better, yesterday’s Americans or today’s – or neither?

I’m not wise enough to guess.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Tests say Americans becoming more intelligent over the generations. How could that be?

  1. At the ripe age of 28, I’m seeing that this next generation lacks critical thinking skills. They might know how to solve a problem, but are unsure of the process to implement the solution… So they may have more information crammed into their organic hard drive, but they have less of an idea about what to do with it… However, the very youngest generation (1-10 year olds now), they will be the ones to watch.

    The children of my generation, I think, will be exposed equally to intelligence and wisdom because of reform and technology, as well as our current follies becoming educational history. Maybe they will be wise enough to see history repeats only when you don’t learn from it.

  2. I personally think that my generation has gotten smarter with all our new technology, but we have relied less and less on books. So we might have gotten lazier due to the fact that information is now at the tips of our fingers.

  3. Testing patterns compared to earlier tests is irrelevant science. I know I’m smarter than previous generations, but the way to test I.Q. in the context of “Americans” is to test the current test scores to other current test scores to the rest of the world, or test the difference of test between Americans and the rest of the world over time from then to now.

    Reason testing backwards is irrelevant? The questions and answers have been passed around already, reason they change the questions. Now to check ‘patterns’ of questions and answer results might show more.

  4. As our world becomes smarter we have to adapt or really… become more responsible than we were before. Anything that we create with our intelligence can be used for good or for something that can cause harm. It is for this reason that we are slowing destroying ourselves. With each generation that passes more technological advances allow us to do these things. The human races irresponsibility is why there is corruption. We all think we are the smartest race, but we aren’t. All other species besides humans work together. They don’t have wars, or blame others for their problems. They really don’t have a downfall. We do, and eventually it will come.

  5. I think that we are getting more technical and test of intelligence are still the same. As for getting more intelligent I think that in some cases it is quite opposite.

  6. You raise a lot of questions in my head; you wrote an excellent post, but this post is also mind provoking. Based on graph younger people more intelligent, but older people have much more experience, what you call wisdom.

  7. You give too much credence to these ridiculous tests of “intelligence”. If you put them in question all of the puzzles you seek to explain disappear.
    IQ tests measure school preparedness and conditioning, thus old people don’t score highly. It’s that simple.

    • Whatever their deeper significance, IQ tests correlate much more strongly than interviews or recommendations with success on the job, but since Griggs vs Duke Power Co. employers have been forbidden by law to give job candidates an intelligence test. Nevertheless, about 100 years of psychometric data show beyond any doubt that IQ tests accurately measure ones ability to solve unfamiliar problems and learn new tasks. For instance, you can rank order a group Berkeley Students by some standard IQ measure, then give them a series of unfamiliar timed tasks like build a somewhat complex piece of IKEA furniture, read a Chilton’s manual and change the starter on a ’69 Buick Skylark, guess the number of jelly beans in a jar where the number is greater than 600, solve a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle of a white field, etc and students with high IQs will complete more tasks than students with average IQs who will complete more tasks than the students with the low IQs. In fact, the more tasks you include, the closer the percentages of tasks successfully completed will reflect the IQ rank order.

  8. The graph stops at 1990. This is the so-called Flynn effect. More recent studies in Finland seem to show a steep leveling out in recent years. A good deal of the gain in recent decades occurred disproportionately in non-verbal categories, measured by tests like Raven’s matrices — as might be expected given the rise in time spent by children in front of television and video games. Verbal intelligence however IS declining.

    In truth, America’s smartest generation graduated High School on 1964 if one assumes (pre-1990) SAT scores are the truest measure of intellectual ability. Of course, IQ averages are meaningless today because of the rapidly changing demographic composition of the population, but I’m actually a bit surprised by how misleading this faculty blog post is: it invites the reader to conclude that kids in 2010 are smarter on average than kids in 1990. No reasonably perceptive person living in California for the past 20 or so years believes that.

    I wonder what Prof Arthur Jensen would say?

  9. I am 60 years old and am constantly learning something. I have returned to school recently. I agree that older people, and I notice this of my friends, are stuck in their proverbial rut. Since I have continued to learn and experience and take on new changes and adventures I see how much more progressive I am then them. Their thoughts (and thought patterns and ways of reasoning) are staid. They have not progressed past a certain time frame (each one different). So yes, younger people are smarter as they have new ideas and educations BUT they do not have the experience that the older persons have. So who’s wiser? Neither. If we could have the balance of an older adult and a younger adult work together we would have many great solutions, leaderships, etc. A perfect example is our federal court system, our congress. Not only should they be balanced by party but also by age!

    • That’s very inciteful Marilyn, and something I’ve always agreed with (albeit in my inexperienced twenty years).

      Some of the biggest intellectual battles I’ve had in my life is convincing certain adults that they are not beyond being proven wrong by someone just because of age.

Comments are closed.