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Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests

Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial

Ulric Neisser

The Visual and Technical Environment

Child-rearing practices and modes of schooling are just instances of culture, and culture in a general sense has undergone enormous changes in all the "modern" countries where test scores have risen. Everything is changing: what people aspire to, whom they respect, how they live, how much they know about the world, what they do with their time, what skills they have acquired and how they treat other people and expect to be treated themselves. Given the scope of these changes, it is often suggested that modernization results in fundamentally different modes of thought. What might those new modes be? Although this question may be too vague to allow a general or comprehensive answer, one possibility leaps immediately to mind.

Perhaps the most striking 20th-century change in the human intellectual environment has come from the increase in exposure to many types of visual media. From pictures on the wall to movies to television to video games to computers, each successive generation has been exposed to far richer optical displays than the one before. People once regarded pictures as museum pieces or as occasional decorations for the homes of the rich; now they are everywhere, and everybody takes their own photographs. Schoolchildren of all ages devote far more time to visual "projects" today than they did a generation ago. (They devote correspondingly less time to the old "three Rs" of reading, writing and arithmetic, with the predictable consequence that skills in those domains have diminished.)

Beyond merely looking at pictures, we analyze them. Picture puzzles, mazes, exploded views and complex montages appear everywhere—on cereal boxes, on McDonald's wrappers, in the instructions for assembling toys and in books intended to help children pass the time. Even the answer sheets for standardized tests—often on pages separate from the questions—assume that the test-takers can locate the right places to record their responses. And static displays such as pictures and diagrams are only the beginning. We have had movies since the 1920s, television since the 1950s and video games since the 1970s. Patricia Greenfield of the University of California at Los Angeles argues that children exposed to these media develop specific skills of visual analysis, skills in which they routinely excel their elders. The assumption that children can program a VCR more effectively than their parents has become a cliche of American society, one that recognizes an important generational shift.

It is possible, then, that exposure to complex visual media has produced genuine increases in a significant form of intelligence. This hypothetical form of intelligence might be called "visual analysis." Tests such as Raven's may show the largest Flynn gains because they measure visual analysis rather directly; tests of learned content may show the smallest gains because they do not measure visual analysis at all.

Although little direct evidence exists for the visual-analysis hypothesis, it does offer the advantage of focusing our attention on the diversity of mental abilities. Flynn's argument that real intelligence cannot have gone up as much as scores on the Raven assumes that there is a "real intelligence"—some unitary quality of mind not unlike Spearman's g. Abandoning that assumption, we may think instead that different forms of intelligence are developed by different kinds of experience. The paradox then disappears: We are indeed very much smarter than our grandparents where visual analysis is concerned, but not with respect to other aspects of intelligence. This is hardly a final answer, but it may be a useful way of thinking about the worldwide rise in test scores.


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