There is a BBC article about intelligence, The surprising downsides of being clever by David Robson. Like many others before, the author questions our obsession with being super smart. Some of the typical data is trotted out and I don’t deny any of it. But I do wonder about the best interpretation.
The question may seem like a trivial matter concerning a select few – but the insights it offers could have ramifications for many. Much of our education system is aimed at improving academic intelligence; although its limits are well known, IQ is still the primary way of measuring cognitive abilities, and we spend millions on brain training and cognitive enhancers that try to improve those scores. But what if the quest for genius is itself a fool’s errand?
It is fair to correlate increasing education rates with increasing average IQ. Part of what IQ tests focus on, after all, is book learning (e.g., crystallized intelligence). The problem with this line of thought is that the greatest increase in IQ has come from an entirely different area, visuospatial problem solving (e.g., fluid intelligence).
Some of that is picked up from school as well, although much of it is gained from general changes in society and culture. Literacy rates have increased since IQ testing began and so there are more people reading, even outside of school. Urbanization rates have increased and, along with it, the kind of urbanized work and daily activities that requires more abstract thinking skills.
This involves a whole host of changes at a mass level that has never before existed in all of human history. In the US, the majority of whites were fully urbanized about a century ago and the majority of blacks about a half century ago. For all the millennia before that, human society was always primarily rural and most work was manual labor requiring concrete thought. Increasing education was a result of urbanization, not its cause.
As always, correlation doesn’t prove causation. Ignoring that for a moment, the author does make a good point when he observes that, “The harsh truth, however, is that greater intelligence does not equate to wiser decisions; in fact, in some cases it might make your choices a little more foolish.” He offers several examples of smart people not always thinking smart. That shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who has come across the “smart idiot” effect. That is the result of a lack of intellectual humility, something I’ve often thought about. For those who education has come easy, it could create an overconfidence in one’s intellectual ability, including in areas where one lacks experience and expertise.
Being smart in one area doesn’t mean being smart in all areas, not as rational or well informed or capable as might be expected. One example the author gives is that high IQ people can in some ways be worse in managing their money, e.g., overcharging credit cards. There might be an inverse relationship, at least in some cases, between abstract thinking and concrete thinking. I know, for example, that research shows it is hard to be emotional and rational at the same time. Parts of our brain and nervous system can to varying degrees act independently, and this can get expressed in our behavior. Humans are notoriously divided, as studies on dissociation have shown. Also, being smart may have little to do with being self-aware, at least beyond a certain point.
There are some other areas the author missed.
I came across an article recently. It was about kids and technology use. It is altering how they think, unsurprisingly.
It should be noted that games and stories made for the present generation of children are so much more complex than in the past. In certain areas, kids are brilliant these days. Take visual problem solving (fluid intelligence), a skill that has increased more than any other area of intelligence, according to IQ tests. Yet there is research that shows delays in other areas of development, such as reading skills.
Many things in life are a trade off. Socrates complained about literacy because it does change people, not just in how they think but also in how they relate to others and perceive the world. Some argue that increasing abstract thinking is what allowed more universal ideas and ideals, such as Christian universal love. Transforming the mind can transform the world.
The thing is we don’t know the consequences of such changes until after they’ve been happening for a long time, sometimes centuries.
All of that is fascinating. But there is an issue that so rarely gets discussed in these kinds of articles. There are complications involved that go far beyond any of this.
Most of the things that raise intelligence are related to what increases health in general, such as better nutrition and healthcare—all things directly related to increasing urbanization, I might add. Better physical health obviously leads to improved brain and cognitive development. This is also seen in other things like decreasing lead toxicity.
Yet there are other things that have the opposite impact. Mercury toxicity, which has become a common pollutant, is known to cause all kinds of mental health and behavioral problems while oddly increasing IQ test scores. Studies have found a connection of mercury to issues like increasing rates of autism. And in such things as aspergers there simultaneously is higher cognitive functioning in some areas and deficits in other areas.
There are some even stranger examples.
Infection by the parasite toxoplasma gondii has probably increased over the past century, because of an increase of people keeping cats in their homes. In some countries, much of the population is infected. This parasite alters brain functioning. Besides causing mental health problems, it increases intelligence in women while decreasing intelligence in men. It also increases the personality trait of neuroticism, which has been correlated both with higher and lower IQ, but not middle range IQ.
It might be relevant to note that one of the mental illnesses correlated to this parasite is schizophrenia. The same area of the brain related to math ability is also related to schizophrenia.
Anyway, my point is that the source of causality is important. Just because mental health issues sometimes are correlated with higher IQ, it doesn’t follow that educating people to be smarter is what is causing those mental illnesses. In many cases, there is a third factor involved, often physical and environmental.
This goes back to the post I recently wrote about the microbes and parasites we inherit from the people around us. I discussed that specific parasite and I noted, in the comments section, that at the large scale this might shape entire cultures.
All of civilization is a vast experiment. Our environments are constantly being altered, by our own actions and by outside forces. We are normally oblivious to all of this. But the factors we don’t see still can have immense effect on us.
We know that the average IQ has risen over the generations. And we know many other things have gone up over the same period. What we don’t entirely know is what are all of the causes behind these changes.
I’ve previously discussed the Flynn effect. One aspect of this is what has been called the moral Flynn effect. But considering some of the factors that can sometimes increase IQ while leading to other detrimental results, maybe we should also consider that parallel to this there is also an immoral/amoral Flynn effect. Not all things that increase intelligence are entirely beneficial for either the individual or society.