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If Technology Makes Us Dumber, Why Are We Getting Smarter?

By on September 26, 20122 Comments

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We often think of Information Overload as sapping our intelligence and decreasing our reasoning powers, but, starting in the early 1900s and continuing to the present day, Americans who have taken standardized IQ tests have gained on average three points per decade. Despite claims that texting and Twitter have watered down literacy and the ability of young people to write, research from Stanford that covered writing samples from 2001-2006 shows that students were writing far more than previous generations did. Perhaps as significantly, the study found that they were adept at tailoring their style for a specific audience (i.e. no emoticons in a class essay).

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James A. Flynn, explains an interesting theory about the reasons behind this. Flynn is the researcher and creator of the Flynn effect, which first acknowledged the trend of rising IQ scores. He notes in his recent article Are We Really Getting Smarter? that one of the main differences between us and our forebears is how the modern world we live in both embraces the hypothetical and values classification. We tend to look for what traits things have in common (as opposed to what traits are different), and are willing and able to imagine possible outcomes.

These differences make us better suited for exercises such as IQ tests that measure the ability to analyze and extrapolate patterns, or use logic to determine the answer to a hypothetical question. Treating hypothetical situations as legitimate thought experiments also enables a writer to visualize his audience and shift tone and style appropriately.

Of course, higher scores on IQ tests alone don’t mean that we are necessarily smarter. Interestingly enough, it seems that we are continuing to improve the specific skill sets that the tests measure, not by studying for the test, but in natural reaction to changes in our environment. In a sense, our mental abilities are evolving by chance in the same direction as the way the tests were originally created.

Information Overload, although detrimental in a variety of documented ways, in this case may not be so bad. Our fast-paced world throws so much information at us on a daily basis that learning how to classify incoming data is a critical survival skill. Given how many different ideas we are exposed to through media, the Internet, and our hyper-connected social lives, it is no surprise that our ability to conflate concepts and scenarios to create hypothetical situations is growing stronger.

The downside of Information Overload is clear: shortened attention spans, lost time and productivity, Internet addiction, and health issues. Nonetheless, there may be a few positive benefits from the barrage of information we receive today, at least as far as IQ scores are concerned.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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