Constant distractions are leading to major declines in top-level reasoning. What to do?

Till 20 year ago, IQ scores in the West increased about 3 points per decade ever since the 1920s, a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect”. That rise in IQ test scores, which have an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, was attributed to improved schooling, improved nutrition, and the increased demands of the workplace. In recent decades that steady increase has turned into a sharp decrease. I want to discuss the evidence for this, the role of constant distractions, and what can be done.

The evidence.

Since about 1995, IQ scores have started to decline in the West, first in places that by then had optimised education systems wherein the vast majority of the population were stimulated to reach their cognitive potential. A good example of the data that shows this decline is in the graph below, taken from a 2018 PNAS study.

These graphs all show IQ scores derived from a test given in the period 1980-2009 to Norwegian boys aged 18-19 when they were considered for the military. Since Norway had a conscription army in this period, we are looking at the IQ scores of most of the male population. The graphs show that the cohorts born in 1961, who took the test around 1980, had lower IQs than those born in 1975 (the peak), after which there was a large drop.

The three graphs show you the differences in these trends if you look at different bits of the data. The middle graph uses only data on brothers within the same family, thus holding family circumstances relatively constant. The third graph is the one favoured by the authors of the piece because it corrects for selection problems over time, namely that over time those with cognitive problems became less likely to be given the test in the first place. The estimated decline from the cohort born in 1975 till 1990 is then about 5 points, or 0.35 IQ point decline per year.

A 2018 survey by Flynn himself (and others) surveys the results across many Western countries. The average IQ decline since 1995 turns out to be a phenomenon seen nearly everywhere, with the exception of the US where improvements in schooling meant the reversal was observed later in the general population, although already clear to see for the top.

The general pattern Flynn found was that abstract cognitive thinking, which is particularly important for understanding and forward planning, reduced the most, somewhat compensated by improvements in spatial awareness and pattern recognition. Interestingly, the drop is particularly pronounced at the top of the academic ladder: the “Pendulum” and “Equilibrium” tests in England among teenagers showed that the percentage able to get top marks in these tests declined from 20% to 5% from 1976 to 2006 (Equilibrium test), and from 24% to 12% (Pendulum test).

Tests done in Australia show a similar decline, though the last Australian data in the Flynn survey is 2003 and the only comparison data was from the 1970s. Still, if you look at the rapidly declining PISA scores for Australians aged 15 in the last 20 years, where the PISA tests mainly look at “higher-order thinking”, it seems the decline has progressed at a faster pace in Australia than elsewhere.


Likely reasons

The explanation of Flynn and others ties in with the “distraction” hypothesis that has been coming out of neuroscience work the last 20 years. This says that social media, mobile phones, and the internet have lead to a dramatic change in our attention span. We are now distracted much more frequently than before, and our minds are adjusting by becoming better at dealing with disparate information coming from many different sources, at the cost of being able to concentrate for long periods or think deeply about complex problems.

In the words of Flynn and co-authors (crediting Shayer):

“Children drifted away from formal toward concrete thinking. They became more and more immersed in modern visual and aural electronic culture. More time (four to five hours a day, more on weekends) spent on TV, computer games, and cell-phones, all of which decrease their attention span.”

Flynn and his co-authors also have something interesting to say about the boy/girl difference in teenage years. They note that in the 1970s boys did better at IQ tests on average, but that boys started to get worse at cognitively demanding tasks first such that girls overtook them, though both their IQs declined after the 1990s. One main explanation is that boys were seduced by computer games before girls discovered the internet.

These explanations fit the findings in neuroscience about the plasticity of the brain and how constant distractions are both addictive and lead to slow changes in our wiring. In a 2016 book “The distracted Mind”, Gazzaley and Rosen discuss these phenomena at length, predicting that it is only going to get worse, ie

“It is clear that our interruptive technologies are only going to become more effective in drawing our attention away from important aspects of life, so we urgently need to understand why we are so sensitive to interference and how we can find a ‘signal amidst the noise’ in our high-tech world.”

I basically entirely agree with these offered explanations. The economic version of these arguments is that individual attention is largely a commons and that we’re encountering a tragedy of the commons: those who manage to distract us are more likely to sell us something, without those distractors paying the price of the negative externality on our focusing abilities. Moreover, most of us are willingly distracted and our social information systems are now set up for distraction since we use the same platforms that distract for coordination and doing our work.

I have noticed the importance of incessant distractions for my own functioning and those of others. Distractions are addictive and difficult to avoid, even if you are fully cognisant of their long-term damaging effects. The loss of top-cognitive functioning is particularly bad for academia and for societal systems that rely heavily on the intelligence of its elites, like the UK.

The “modern university” is the worst of all worlds when it comes to the detrimental effects of distractions. For one, university administrations themselves distract students and academics all the time with their constant virtue-signalling messages of “health and safety” and many other matters: for administrative systems distracting the whole organisation has little cost and is simply seen as “informing”, “making aware”, etc..

Students are made into sitting ducks for attention-grabbing because of the good mobile phone and internet connections at universities. By offering online lectures in stead of forcing students to sit down and at least try to pay attention for some continuous period of time, universities are even diluting the pro-focus impact of its traditional teaching. Universities have also clamped down in recent decades on activities that would create a bit of a counter-balance, such as long field trips and writing long essays. Field trips are deemed too dangerous and long essays are both unpopular and take too much effort to police.


What can be done?

Supposed you agree that it is extremely important that our societies find a way to regain a large group of individuals who can keep their attention focussed on one thing for a long time. And you agree that the problem is one of incessant distractions coming from the extremely low price people pay when distracting others via mobile phones, pads, internet, email, social media, etc. You know that the effects of these distractions on the ability to concentrate are slow but they accumulate over several years.

The challenge is then that if you want to do something about it, you would have to shield groups from distractions for years. The key problem is that our social systems of communication and production use the very platforms that have optimised distraction protocols on it: we communicate by mobile phones, allowing others to constantly distract us, and we produce via computers and the internet that are also specifically designed to distract us as much as possible. How can one take out the distractions while keeping communication and production going?

The solution that comes to mind is to shield top students from distractions from an early age. One thinks of rules like “no more than 30 minutes of social media and mobile phone from the age of 4 onwards”, “Internet usage only for focussed activities, like writing essays and settling factual arguments”, “a sender-charge system for emails, text messages, and all other forms of distracting others”, and “no internet and mobile connections on most of a University campus, except libraries”.

These market-price and club-rule solutions unfortunately seem likely to fail when imposed on people because they do not address the fact of life that the rest of society will keep using the same super-distracting technology. Those technologies are completely integrated making club-solutions hard to enforce and easy to counteract. The teenager who is not allowed to use the mobile phone or pop-up internet sites at school will go back home and play internet games with friends, whilst constantly texting and apping. The teenager who does not do this is not merely a social outcast, but also is not learning the technology and social skills that the vast majority is learning, thereby cutting him or herself off from the ability to relate and interact with others later on.

The same holds for the student supposedly only allowed to send emails and texts via a university system in which she has to pay to distract others: she’d very quickly set up “free” email accounts to resume “normal life” with others students. If they cant use phones and emails on campus, they’d first of all complain that this puts their health in danger because they then cannot check on the health and condition of their children and parent, and of course they will simply go off campus and use the facilities there.

Even if you’d effectively seal off the student population for a few years on a remote campus (or a mountain retreat) where you do manage to keep distractions to a minimum by means of heavy interference with the technology they use, you’d most likely do more harm than good. Before and after their retreat, the distractions are in full force. More importantly, the students would be cut-off from the rest of society. That is bad for their social relationships and prevents them from being full members of their society, its civil discourse and political systems. One would thus be creating anti-social ivory-tower academics, which is the opposite of what you want for the social sciences. It’s probably not so bad for theoretical physics and chemistry, but who needs another economist with no interest in the outside world or in social relations?

What can one then realistically do as parents, universities, companies, and governments worried about this?

The first step has to be to make intellectuals and universities aware of the problems. Parents in particular will be motivated to do something about it. Governments will want universities and companies to find counter-moves. You’d think that high-status people and high-productivity places would first move against distractions if they’d be convinced of their negative effects.

Over time I can imagine whole societies decide to move against distractions, trying to price the externality into our behaviour. It would be yet another reason to get national control over the Internet. One can also think of social media free days and periods, extending the basic idea of Lent, Ramadan, and Sundays. One can think of compulsory use of sender-pay technologies for phones and emails inside companies and the civil services: think of electronic stamps one would have to put on messages that cost money depending on size. One can think of clubs of parents who recognise they need to shield their children and workers from constant distractions.

In essence, I think the tragedy of the commons that is eroding our best mind via continuous distractions can only be adressed by a conscious society-wide counter movement. At the minimum, a counter-move needs a whole social stratum to be convinced of the issue. That kind of thing takes decades and starts with a broader recognition of the magnitude of the problem.

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17 Responses to Constant distractions are leading to major declines in top-level reasoning. What to do?

  1. Paul is the drop in IQ scores also the case for east Asia and China?

    From memory the first smart phone, the iPhone (and therefore truely pocket-size ,everywhere 24/7 distraction )is relatively recent -about 2007.

    Yet the graphs seem to show a significant decline many years before that.
    Since there must be a significant lag effect in the results , could the results ,instead reflect changes in teaching, curriculums or parenting practices back in day 1990?

    • good points. Most of Asia (China, India) has seen spectacular increases in education that will swamp these distraction effects, so although the survey I linked too doesnt say, its a good bet IQ is still up. Also, places like Singapore and such still have a culture of very long hours of rote learning for children, leaving them little time to be distracted. So I doubt its dropped much there, though this does have a cost in terms of less social and emotional skills.

      Its true that the mobiles, ipads and such came in too late for the Norwegian data (with the last observation there 2009) though it does perfectly fit the spectacular drop in Australian PISA scores.

      The turning point was about 1995 in these various studies (that’s when the 1975 cohort in Norway did these tests in the graph). That’s when the internet boom was including the introduction of email in many places. Social media took longer to get going, but online chats, emails, and distractions were already big at the end of the 1990s in these advanced economies. True, the big things you’d call distractions came in the 00s which is also when you see the bigger drops.

      • Paul It could be a chicken egg thing.
        When I was a child in the sixties and early seventies, growing up in a very average suburb, there were two main morning papers and two evening papers their headlines and styles were not the same but they weren’t that different and just about everyone read at least one of them most days. And much the same was true for tv and radio news.
        It was also the days where many people worked in a relatively small number of largeish centralised workplaces .
        Many people out of habit still followed for life the same football team or attended the same church for life.( on Sundays Mortdale really was, Death Valley)

        While it was in hindsight changing, suburban Australia was much more homogeneous than it is today.

        Suspect that the changes re work economics and cultural diversity, that kicked in in the early nineties , that lead to a increasingly fractured noisy place full of distraction might be a big part of the picture.

  2. Chris Lloyd says:

    If there are changes in public policy that I think would have beneficial effects but are unlikely to ever be implemented they are: (1) a small charge for every share transaction (2) a small charge for every email or text.

    PS. I knew the students were getting dumber!
    PPS: Paul, I was busy doing some research and was distracted by a Clubtroppo notification.of your post!

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, I am also in favour of a kind of “stamp” on email, much like stamps on regular mail, that introduce a bit of a cost to sending round all the garbage. The Tobin tax idea (tax on transactions) needs a world government, but the stamp idea can be done inside large organisations so has a bit more mileage.

      I know, troppo notifications are part of the problem!

  3. Like Chris, I was seeking a distracting and found this post.

    I definitely think the modern smart-phone connected world is, and will be, a factor in the decline of high-level abstract thinking.

    The causal question still seems very open on this (assuming the data is reliable and not subject to selection or other policy biases that get the result).

    My thoughts.

    1. The fact that IQ test results track economic development is suggestive of one obvious contributing cause—macroeconomic conditions. Many macroeconomic indicators have similar time trends to these IQ test results, with a turning point in the 1970s. Inequality, wages growth, etc. There are also women entering the workforce at that time, etc.

    Are there cross-regional (cities, states, etc) test results that allow macroeconomic performance and IQ to be matched?

    This also gets to the “does IQ cause economic growth or does economic growth cause IQ” thing. It seems like the second is the more likely, and hence we already think that economic conditions are a major causal factor.

    2. If the “distraction” hypothesis is correct, then we should at least see less improvement in IQ scores in recently industrialising countries. The pattern should hold across nations exposed to the same trends in “distraction environments”.

    3. I feel like the distraction hypothesis is just far too recent a phenomenon to see the turning point in people born in the late 1970s (taking the IQ test in the mid-1990s). For my cohort (born in 1982) the test would have been taken in 2000. I still didn’t have a mobile phone or much more than dial-up internet. Television had been around in childhoods for a long time prior to the turning point. Was there really any change to the “distraction environment” in this period?

    4. I personally worry about this with my kids. I set a terrible example of being distracted at home by devices. But from what I’ve tried with my kids, and observed with other kids, is that heavily restricting devices early (from birth to age 10) helps later. They just don’t seem to care as much.

    5. Schooling. I’m sure this is a focus of many studies in this area. There have been many changes to schooling. Those born in the 1960s would probably have had fewer years of formal schooling on average. Is that controlled for?

    • paul frijters says:

      I am not a super-expert on this but will try to answer:

      1. (macro). Unlikely. Inequality in many countries hasn’t increased since the 90s (its more of an Anglo thing). Ditto for economic development. Its stalled in many places, but not gone backwards (till this year).
      2. (catch-up in industrialised countries) Yep, true as far as I know.
      3. The turning happened first for boys so the culprit in the early 90s would be computer games. It was the time of attari and the commodore. The old guys reading this will know what that means :-)
      4. Yep, same with me. We have tried to keep our kids from these devices till relatively late and they are indeed less into them. Still, computer games have proven a big distraction….
      5. Of course schooling is a big causal factor they’ve looked at a lot. Its not a “control” but a “cause”. A problem is that the quality of schooling has changed, probably downwards in many countries (like Oz) the last 20 years (but not in the Nordic countries). Its not easy measuring school quality though.

  4. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    I was always taught you needed quite a few IQ tests to know a person’s IQ.

    It does not appear this has occurred here.

    Was it?

  5. Saupreiss says:

    Digital addiction has been an issue for quite a while and indeed the addiction is to a considerable extent engineered:

    How to counteract? Well, you can google digital detox and find all kinds of suggestions:

    I decided for myself about 5 – 6 ago to leave my laptop in the office and take only hard copy with me. In effect, I digitally detox half a day every day and it really works wonders. Try it.

    • Saupreiss says:

      5 – 6 years ago

    • paul frijters says:

      I have tried many such things and for instance dont have a modern mobile (just a simple nokia, so clients and journos can reach me).
      Yet my self-discipline is not as good as yours. Its a real problem. I take non-digital long holidays.

      • Saupreiss says:

        Same over here; can’t access the web with my cell phone which I only use for sms and phone calls. That of course is the corrollary to leaving the laptop in the office when I leave there. Otherwise I could not digitally detox half a day every day.

  6. R. N. England says:

    When one does an IQ test, some turkey hands out a wad of paper and says, “Here, jump through these linguistic hoops!” What one does next is a highly complicated function of one’s heredity and environment. To think it a measure of just one parameter is a sign of low intelligence.

    • I think you should give this literature a bit more credit. Lots of different tests, lots of different wads of paper. Of course they think of intelligence as a multi-dimensional concept but in communication it is important to convey general messages in simpler terms, explaining more of the complexity to those who really want to know. That’s the same for pretty much any science. You might say there is no single dimension called climate. Or species. Or particles.

  7. Conrad says:

    I think that a lot of the stuff mentioned in terms of this is looking at literature that is coming at an age range after a lot of the damage is done — I reckon a lot of it is coming from early school years as many (most) white-guy countries have moved from learning to all the BS like resilience training and so on instead. As an example, my daughter goes to childcare where they don’t teach any of this has far as I can tell (we had teach her how to write, do simple sums etc.), but they do have resilience training (which cynically, one could point out would be helpful for the kids that learnt nothing), and I think this pretty typical.

    This is important for mathematics especially because a lot of the stuff you learn later in life is dependent on your really early learning, a lot of which is more or less rote learning and isn’t done much any more. This has been known since the 70s — basically if you don’t automatize the early processing you won’t have the resources to do more complicated things. So algebra will be hard if you have to think about adding numbers up all the time.

    The technology stuff is also harmful, not just in terms of distractions. I always point to graphical calculators here as a reason our students can’t even read simple graphs anymore. They basically haven’t developed visuo-spatial skills because all you do now is press a button and have the answer. So you don’t get what cognitive psychology people like to call deep learning going on which we used to get by drawing graphs of functions over and over.

    On this note, there is a good paper by Andrew Leigh looking at maths performance where had he data from decades back, and it showed that the pinnacle in Aus was the mid eighties, but the damage done over time was to the right tail, which was reduced (i.e., the people who would have otherwise been good at maths).

    You can look at what was taught in text books, but and it reduces over time in terms of what they teach. I tried to dig up some of that stuff from ages ago (and wasn’t so successful), but the decline in what they are teaching goes back before high school — and it’s not like kids in the 80s wern’t watching too much TV even then. So there is more than just distraction that is likely to be the cause of these problems. It may be a general shift across what is being taught and how and ages most people don’t think about much.

  8. conrad says:

    Incidentally — if you want a good example where policy made a difference (and hence something relatively orthogonal to just distractions), then the No Child Left Behind Act worked well on the left side of the distribution (and presumably you would have got kick-on effects onto IQ). At present, for example, the reading ability of low SES children in France is worse than the US, even though English is harder to learn.

  9. Rafe Champion says:

    Great research report, thanks Paul!

    In the current literature on productivity and personal development there is a lot of emphasis on switching off social media almost completely apart from strategic use for marketing and list building.

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