Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How the media is affecting Human Intelligence

Richard Haier, James R. Flynn, Robert J. Sternberg

Social Media, News


James R. Flynn, University of Otago, New Zealand

Richard Haier, University of California, Irvine

Robert Sternberg,Cornell University, New York

How are technological advances, access to instant information and media forces affecting human intelligence?

James Flynn:

Media advances must play some role, but probably a modest one in the context of a comprehensive explanation of cognitive gains over time: (1) Ultimate causes are the industrial revolution and the trend toward modernity; (2) Intermediate causes are the effects of industrialization on society, more education, emancipation of women, smaller families (with a better adult to child ratio), more cognitively demanding jobs, more cognitively demanding leisure, and finally – a new pictorial world from television and the internet; (3) Proximate causes have to do with how people’s minds altered, so that in the test room they could do better when taking IQ tests (for example, better at classifying and induction).

Greenfield  argues that popular electronic games, and computer applications require enhanced problem solving in visual and symbolic contexts. Johnson points to the cognitive demands of video games, for example, the spatial geometry of Tetris, the engineering riddles of Myst, and the mapping of Grand Auto Theft.  He shows convincingly that today’s popular TV programs make unprecedented cognitive demands. The popular shows of a generation ago, such as  “I love Lucy” and “Dragnet”, and “Starsky and Hutch”, were simplistic, requiring virtually no concentration to follow.  Beginning in 1981 with “Hill Street Blues”, single-episode drama began to be replaced with dramas that wove together as many as 10 threads into the plot line.  An episode of the hit drama “24” connected the lives of 21 characters, each with a distinct story.

But does the content of TV act as cause or effect?  Its level of cognitive complexity has risen but is that because other factors have fashioned people who are more prepared for this, or is a cause in its own right?

Robert Sternberg:

Media forces are changing what intelligence is – Robert Sternberg

If you look at intelligence tests from the mid-twentieth century, some of them (such as those based on Louis Thurstone’s theory) used arithmetic computation problems to measure number ability.  But today, such a test would seem dated, as people can do computations on a calculator or a computer.  Similarly, tests of spelling would seem dated because of the prevalence of spellchecks.  Memory used to be viewed as central to intelligence, and for many, still is.  But the skills needed for adaptation today are often not in remembering information; rather they are in effectively retrieving information.  With the Internet, most of the information one needs is available but may not be easily accessible—the challenge is to find it and then evaluate its validity.

Media are having other effects on intelligence, some of which may be pernicious.  For example, I believe people are having more difficulty concentrating these days and sticking to one task.  Rather, they have become multi-taskers, trying to do many things at once. But research shows that people often are not very good at multi-tasking.  Often, they think they are better than they really are.  Further, many television shows are presented at a really low level of intellect and encourage the worst in us.  In the US, there is now an election where the same kind of trash talk that many of us have abhorred in television program is leading to a rather successful presidential political campaign. The kind of trash talk, lack of logic, fluidity of position, and lack of substance that can lead to success today probably would not have worked 50 years ago.  Frighteningly, IQs have gone up since 50 years ago (Flynn effect), meaning that whatever IQ tells us, it’s not about people’s skill in analysing real-world information.

Richard Haier:

Jim Flynn has written about this in the context of his original observation that IQ scores are slowly going up for the last several decades. While there is some debate about whether the increase is a g-factor effect or not, there is general agreement that the increases are driven at least in part by factors made possible by technology advances (think Sesame Street and TV in general). I believe such innovations might help maximize a person’s natural (god-given, genetic) intelligence. Nothing is wrong with this idea but the “Flynn Effect” is a generational effect, not necessarily a potent effect for any individual. There are countless claims about using computer games and memory training to enhance intelligence for individuals. My book details the independent research on these claims. In my view the evidence does not support any of the claims. Nonetheless, the Flynn Effect is an important mystery and research on solving the mystery speaks to my view that the goal of all intelligence research is to enhance intelligence. Jim’s newest book is about intelligence and the role family may play in its development. From my perspective, any family or technology or environmental effect on intelligence must work through biology that influences the brain so I see this question as central to a neuroscience perspective.

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Week 1 – Can We Define Intelligence?

Week 2 – What role does neuroscience play in understanding intelligence and our capacity to learn?

Week 3 – What role do IQ tests play in measuring intelligence?

Week 4 –How are technological advances, access to instant information and media forces affecting human intelligence?

Week 5 – How can current research inform the development of new methods to assess intelligence?

Week 6 – What does the future hold in the research of intelligence? How much smarter will we be in 100 years’ time?

About The Authors

Richard Haier

Richard J. Haier earned is Professor Emeritus at the University of California and author of The Neuroscience of Intelligence....

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James R. Flynn

James R. Flynn is the author of Does Your Family Make You Smarter? He is professor emeritus at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a recipient of the University's Gold Medal ...

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Robert J. Sternberg

Robert J. Sternberg is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, New York. Formerly, he was IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University, Connecticut. H...

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