The exceptionally interesting James Flynn explains the cognitive history of the past century and what it means in terms of human intelligence in this TED talk:
What does the future hold? While we might decry the “twitch” generation and their inundation by social media, gaming stimulation, and instant interpersonal engagement, the slowing observed in the Flynn Effect might be getting ready for another ramp-up over the next 100 years.
Perhaps most intriguing is the discussion of the ability to think in terms of hypotheticals as a a core component of ethical reasoning. Ethics is about gaming outcomes and also about empathizing with others. The influence of media as a delivery mechanism for narratives about others emerged just as those changes in cognitive capabilities were beginning to mature in the 20th Century. Widespread media had a compounding effect on the core abstract thinking capacity, and with the expansion of smartphones and informational flow, we may only have a few generations to go before the necessary ingredients for good ethical reasoning are widespread even in hard-to-reach areas of the world.
A new 14-year-old is an odd place to begin with a discussion of nature and nurture, but my new 14-year-old set me off on the topic of the is-ought barrier when we were discussing the hows and whys of his incredibly athletic cat, who is a natural born killer. 500 million birds each year! It was all theoretical because our cats are indoor only; a dozen moths and flies, maybe.
But related is “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact,” a fascinating study by Hodson and Busseri at Brock University in Canada, which apparently is also involved in the NASA Curiosity project. The study suggests that stupidity (in the form of low g or “general intelligence”) leads to right-wing ideals, which is perhaps comforting to those opposed to right-wing ideals but has limited utility otherwise. Conservatives, of course, shot at the messenger while liberals endorsed it.
Drilling down into the results reveals some intricacies, however. Low g or IQ correlated with low abstract thinking and also with limited contact with social groups that were not like-minded. This leads, in turn, to questions about g and its stability as a measure: for instance, the Flynn Effect might be explained by a broadly more stimulating environment for individuals. Now, let’s say that the stimulating environment is a result of greater social contact and social requirements for intelligence as manifested through school and complex interactions in urban and suburban environments (as distinct from isolated agrarian communities in the past). After all, one explanation for enhanced verbal and mathematical psychometric performance among Ashkenazi Jews is the so-called “shtetl” effect wherein urban channeling and genetic isolation might have produced a “founder effect” with selective pressure towards certain capabilities. Could the same be true of the broader community? Are we getting smarter because of complex interactions?
If this is the case, then we should see patterns of conservatism where population density is low while more liberal attitudes prevail in higher density settings. And we largely do in America and most of Western Europe, where urban clusters tend towards more liberal attitudes. The only problem with this theory is that measurable IQ may not correlate with urban density.
Or does it?