Psychologists have been measuring response times because before psychology existed, and they’re still a staple of cognitive psychology experiments now. Typically psychologists search for a gap in the time it requires participants to react to stimulation under different states as signs of differences in how cognitive processing happens in these states.
Galton, the famed eugenicist and statistician, gathered a large data set (n=3410) of so called ‘simple reaction times’ at the very last years of this 19twentieth century. ) Galton’s curiosity was fairly different from many contemporary psychologists — he had been interested in steps of response time for a index of individual gaps. Galton’s concept was that differences in processing rate could underlie differences in intelligence, and perhaps those gaps might be economically evaluated by documenting people’s reaction times.
Galton’s information generates an interesting opportunity — are individuals now, over 100 years later, quicker or slower compared to Galton’s participants? If you think Galton’s concept, the reply would not only tell you when you’d be inclined to win in a quick-draw competition using a Victorian gunslinger, it might also offer an insight into conversational changes in cognitive functioning more broadly.
Reaction period [RT] information gives an intriguing counterpoint to the most well-known historic shift in cognitive functioning — that the production on production boost in IQ scores, called the Flynn Effect. The Flynn Effect summarizes two types of people — people who seem at “kids today” and understand by intuition that they’re not as considerate, less intelligent and less educated their own creation (this was recorded in every generation back to at least Ancient Greece), and people who look at children today and understand by prior theoretical responsibilities that every generation ought to be wider compared to the preceding (since smarter individuals have fewer kids, is the thought ).
Whilst that the Flynn Effect contradicts the thought that individuals are getting dumber, some expect does appear to lie at the response time data. Maybe Victorian participants really did have quicker reaction times! Several research newspapers (1, 2) have attempted to compare Galton’s outcomes to more contemporary studies, some of which attempted to use the same devices in addition to the exact same method of measurement. Here’s Silverman (2010):
that the RTs acquired by young adults at 14 studies released from 1941 on were contrasted with the RTs acquired by young adults at a research conducted by Galton from the late 1800s. With one exclusion, the more recent studies obtained RTs more than those acquired by Galton. The chance that these differences in outcomes are due to faulty timing tools is considered but deemed improbable.
Woodley et al (2015) possess a useful chart (Galton’s outcome shown on the bottom left):
So that the distinction is simply ~20 milliseconds (i.e. one fiftieth of a second) over 100 decades, however in response time terms that is a hefty chunk — it implies modern participants are all about 10percent slower!
What are we to make of this? Normally we would not place much weight on a single analysis, one with 3000 participants, but there are not many choices. It is not like we could have access to young adults born from the 19th century to assess whether the result reproduces. It’s a pity there are not more intervening studies, so we could examine the sensible prediction that participants at the 1930therefore needs to be about halfway between the Victorian and contemporary participants.
And, even when we think this datum, what exactly does it mean? A real decline in cognitive capability? Excess cognitive load on different purposes? Motivational changes? Changes in how experiments have been approached or run by participants? I am not giving up on the children just yet.
- Irwin, W. S. (2010). Simple reaction time: it is not what it used to be. American Journal of Psychology, 123(1 ) ), 39-50.
- Woodley, M. A., Te Nijenhuis, J., & Murphy, R. (2013). Were the Victorians cleverer than us? The decline in general intelligence estimated from a meta-analysis of the slowing of simple reaction time. Intelligence, 41(6 ) ), 843-850.
- Woodley, M. A, te Nijenhuis, J., & Murphy, R. (2015). The Victorians were still faster than us. Commentary: Factors influencing the latency of simple reaction time. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 452.