Are We Too Smart for Our Own Good?

Intellectually, we are a bit smarter. Emotionally we seem dumber. What if both are for the same reason?

If everyone on the planet were twice as smart tomorrow, none of our intelligence scores would change. Intelligence is a relative concept. The scores are constantly adjusted to keep IQ scores meaning the same thing, relative to the current group. It is commonsense to believe that the current generation is less intelligent than previous generations, but in fact in the modern era the adjustments are always up, not down. Kids today are able to think more abstractly and do it earlier. We even have a name for this shift – the Flynn effect – after the researcher who popularized the finding. Every three years or so the average IQ ticks up another point. We giggle over the residents of Lake Woebegone who are certain that all of their children are above average, but if we would stop re-adjusting the norms, that could someday actually come true.

There is a lot of argument about why we are getting more intelligent (in some sense of that word at least), but I think the most likely reason is that kids are exposed to a constant flow of verbal and visual information. I’m 61. I remember when my parents first bought a television. I remember there were three TV channels we could watch, and precious few shows that I would find interesting. After school and on weekends I would usually disappear into the canyons of El Cajon, California to play with my friends. Long hours were spent hiking, building forts, shooting BB guns, and trying to find rattle snakes. My best friends, Joe, Tom, Mike, and George, talked enough but the pace of conversation was slow, the periods of relative silence while we explored were large, and the topics were somewhat limited.

Today it is different. Today my four-year-old is exposed to more words and images in a day than I would guess I was exposed to in a week. As I sit here writing this blog, an MSNBC news show is playing in the background, an RSS feed is flowing by on my screen, and in the next room I can hear the Backyardigans. It’s an American household. If someone is home there is usually a television playing … and often while I read the newspaper and glance at my laptop. Computers. Text messages. Facebook. iPods. We are in a technological era never before faced by humankind. With each word we hear, with each image we see, we get a little smarter. We know more. We’ve seen more. We can think a bit more abstractly. A child asked today what the similarity is between a dog and a rabbit will likely answer easily that they are both mammals. 100 years ago the child would say that dogs eat rabbits. True, all of this media may not look like sophisticated forms of learning. Much of what we learn is low culture. But it will not be long before those IQ tests will need to be readjusted to keep us all from looking smarter. Again. Quite apart from formal measures of intelligence, our social knowledge is also increasing. I remember in the sixth grade being shocked by some of the rudimentary “fact of life” that I was learning from my friends. Today broadcasters have to decide if it is OK to allow “Man Crunch” gay dating commercials to be shown during the Super Bowl. Kids, we say, grow up early today. They know a lot early about war, violence, and sexuality. But emotional and social wisdom is another matter. It seems that it is harder for people to be respectful and kind to each other. It seems harder to understand each other. It seems harder to feel connected, to be part of a larger group, or to care.

Our politics have devolved into harsh rhetoric and stalemate. Our economics seems driven by greed and self-interest. We can get roused by the Haitian earthquake — more words and incredible images — but have long ago forgotten the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami where those in poorer countries still struggle with the aftermath. Taking even the most limited steps to deal with global climate change brings shrieks of impending harm to our self-interest. Yet floods kill thousands from the increased humidity in the atmosphere due to increased evaporation, we pretend that it has nothing to do with our behavior. Even hate crimes seem to be going up, not down and many of our most difficult mental health problems are increasing. We are smarter, perhaps. But our emotional and social intelligence seems to be going backwards. What if these two broad trends both emerge from the same place: the fire hose of words and images technology provides us in the modern world? Just turn on the television and watch a range of shows. Ask yourself periodically what people are playing for. Ask what is the purpose behind the words and images. Here is what I see.

People are playing to be right, to look good, and to have a good story to tell. These purposes are played out both outside and inside. Our politics are about who is right and (especially) who is wrong; is it a surprise that we find ourselves playing the same game with our spouse? We live looking at the images of beautiful people. Is it shocking that we disappear into make over shows that whisper that this could be me if only Oprah would provide. Strength of story is more important than the content of the message. So what if Blago was selling a Senate seat: he is an interesting story. And so what if we are selling ourselves short in our own lives, provided we can explain all to our friends and show who is to blame; provided we can hear their applause and see their agreement. We may be miserable, oh what a story. Oh, how special we are. These purposes are the kinds of motives that emerge from a gluttonousdiet of symbols and pictures. Being “right” is a judgment about our arguments; “looking good” a judgment about how we appear; having a story to tell is what image makers live and die on. But can our humanity thrive inside being right, looking good, and having a good story to tell? I just wonder. As we all get smarter and yet find it harder to be healthy, whole, centered, and interconnected — I just wonder: are we becoming too smart for our own good?

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