Even though the U.S. has the top universities and research institutions in the world, it is struggling to fight a decline in collective mental muscle. People are getting trained at a higher rate than ever, but worrying IQ statistics show that basic reasoning abilities are declining over time.
The Flynn Effect was the name given to the observation that general intelligence measured on IQ tests was rising with time over the 20th century. People appeared to be getting smarter as the decades passed, perhaps because of superior education and more going to college.
However, that trend went into sharp reverse in the 1990s, and now many researchers believe IQ is falling in absolute terms. Explanations for this event are hard to ascertain from the data so far. Scientists point to “hidden variables” and “measurement issues.” Yet, it is not clear what these might be.
Declining IQ isn’t just a problem for the education system, though. It’s also an issue for the entire economy. If intelligence falls too much, it could make political ideals, such as democracy, impossible. The country is already seeing the early pangs of these issues in the 2016 and 2020 general elections. People trust each other less as a function of declining intelligence.
We could also see the effects of lower productivity on the economy. Less intelligent individuals are not as able to organize their time optimally during the day, making them less efficient on relevant scales. This process could also worsen inequality, which already has numerous factors driving it.
Even civic society could see a secular decline (a trend that’s been with us since the 1960s). More intelligent people tend to be prosocial in the sense that they want to contribute to the community and “do their bit.” That’s not true of lower IQ societies. In these, you see a shift to the family and individual, and civic society often fades into obscurity.
The question now is, what can be done about it?
Pessimists worry that declining IQs are baked into the system. Something aside from education is driving the fall, since people spend longer learning than ever before.
However, there are grounds for hope. One option is to get people to use their mental muscles more. Practice helps to form new brain circuits that enable better thinking and more reasoning. Sitting people down to a sudoku or crossword puzzle can activate gray matter across the brain, visible on a scan. You can see the rewiring taking place in real-time. Evidence suggests that consistent and challenging practice can increase a person’s level of intelligence within their maximum range. Getting people closer to their natural upper bounds could help tremendously.
Another option is to improve the environment. Intelligence could be declining because of the toxins that spill over from industrial activity, including things like PCBs, dioxins, and phthalates. These chemicals can disrupt hormonal regulation and perhaps synapse formation, reducing the ability of people to construct the types of brains required for complete modern problem-solving.
Food could also play a role. The American diet of cheese, fatty meats, sugary soda, and baked goods is catastrophic to metabolic function and brain health. Cognitive decline may start as soon as forty for those on the most inflammatory diets, representing billions of life-years lost to a preventable lifestyle factor.
Finally, we could be seeing the effects of chronic stress on the brain. A constant sense of striving and struggle can alter the brain’s structure, making it less able to solve complex problems long-term. For many, the trauma of wars and other situations could also be an issue driving the decline.
You can imagine Americans sitting down to play games and the government cleaning up the environment. But changing the diet will undoubtedly take significantly more work. The U.S. way of eating is so ingrained that it seems challenging to undo.
It is unclear what other options exist to improve overall intelligence. Researchers in the field hope that AI will replace the need for high-end human cognition, but that doesn’t really solve the problem. Conversely, getting machines to do all the heavy lifting might accelerate IQ decline (unless it has something to do with modifiable factors, like the environment).
The silver lining is that this phenomenon seems to be occurring worldwide, not just in the U.S. Therefore, the country is unlikely to relinquish its position as a world leader. Its economy will continue to attract investment, mainly because there isn’t anywhere better for investors to direct their funds.