IQ Test Scores Increased For a Century. But Did it Help?

IQ test scores have been increasing for 100 years, reports a senior journalist at BBC Future. He also writes that there’s evidence “that we may have already reached the end of this era — with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing.”

But this raises an even larger question: did a century of increasing scores on IQ tests bring benefits to society?

You might assume that the more intelligent you are, the more rational you are, but it’s not quite this simple… Consider the abundant literature on our cognitive biases. Something that is presented as “95% fat-free” sounds healthier than “5% fat”, for instance — a phenomenon known as the framing bias. It is now clear that a high IQ does little to help you avoid this kind of flaw, meaning that even the smartest people can be swayed by misleading messages. People with high IQs are also just as susceptible to the confirmation bias — our tendency to only consider the information that supports our pre-existing opinions, while ignoring facts that might contradict our views. That’s a serious issue when we start talking about things like politics.

Nor can a high IQ protect you from the sunk cost bias — the tendency to throw more resources into a failing project, even if it would be better to cut your losses — a serious issue in any business. (This was, famously, the bias that led the British and French governments to continue funding Concorde planes, despite increasing evidence that it would be a commercial disaster.) Highly intelligent people are also not much better at tests of “temporal discounting”, which require you to forgo short-term gains for greater long-term benefits. That’s essential, if you want to ensure your comfort for the future.

Besides a resistance to these kinds of biases, there are also more general critical thinking skills — such as the capacity to challenge your assumptions, identify missing information, and look for alternative explanations for events before drawing conclusions. These are crucial to good thinking, but they do not correlate very strongly with IQ, and do not necessarily come with higher education. One study in the USA found almost no improvement in critical thinking throughout many people’s degrees. Given these looser correlations, it would make sense that the rise in IQs has not been accompanied by a similarly miraculous improvement in all kinds of decision making.

The article concludes that “this kind of thinking can be taught — but it needs deliberate and careful instruction,” and suggests “we might also make a more concerted and deliberate effort to improve those other essential skills too that do not necessarily come with a higher IQ…”

“Ideally, we might then start to see a steep rise in rationality — and even wisdom… If so, the temporary blip in our IQ scores need not represent the end of an intellectual golden age — but its beginning.”

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