Monday, 29 April 2013

The Victorians were cleverer than us!

We keep hearing that people are getting brighter, at least as measured by IQ tests. This improvement, called the Flynn Effect, suggests that each generation is brighter than the previous one. This might be due to improved living standards as reflected in better food, better health services, better schools and perhaps, according to some, because of the influence of the internet and computer games. In fact, these improvements in intelligence seem to have been going on for almost a century, and even extend to babies not in school. If this apparent improvement in intelligence is real we should all be much, much brighter than the Victorians.

Although IQ tests are good at picking out the brightest, they are not so good at providing a benchmark of performance. They can show you how you perform relative to people of your age, but because of cultural changes relating to the sorts of problems we have to solve, they are not designed to compare you across different decades with say, your grandparents.

Is there no way to measure changes in intelligence over time on some absolute scale using an instrument that does not change its properties? In the Special Issue on the Flynn Effect of the journal Intelligence Drs Michael Woodley (UK), Jan te Nijenhuis (the Netherlands) and Raegan Murphy (Ireland) have taken a novel approach in answering this question. It has long been known that simple reaction time is faster in brighter people. Reaction times are a reasonable predictor of general intelligence. These researchers have looked back at average reaction times since 1889 and their findings, based on a meta-analysis of 14 studies, are very sobering.

It seems that, far from speeding up, we are slowing down. We now take longer to solve this very simple reaction time “problem”.  This straightforward benchmark suggests that we are getting duller, not brighter. The loss is equivalent to about 14 IQ points since Victorian times.

So, we are duller than the Victorians on this unchanging measure of intelligence. Although our living standards have improved, our minds apparently have not. What has gone wrong?

You can get more details from Dr Michael Woodley (

I will post more about this work, but a good start is to look at my previous post "Can I have a reaction?"


  1. But not as clever as Newton.

  2. Reaction times are correlated with IQ? Did this come from the Phys. Ed. department?

    OTOH, maybe it's because being sleep-deprived and hungover lowers IQ and slows down reaction times.