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Posted on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 : 9:40 a.m.

Is verbal intelligence rising or falling in the United States?

By Wayne Baker

1130ov literacy letters.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing trends in America.

How good is your vocabulary?

The answer might depend on when you were born, according to findings in the newly published Social Trends in American Life. We’ve consulted this book all week, discussing trends such as American’s rising tolerance of all sorts of different people, changes in racial attitudes, and the liberalization of attitudes about gender roles. We’ve also discussed the enduring role of religion in American life, and how it elevates happiness. Today, we focus on verbal intelligence.

Over 30+ years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has measured American adults’ verbal knowledge. This is the ability to correctly define the meaning of words.

Here’s an example given in the chapter by Duane Alwin and Julianna Pacheco:

Consider the word BEAST. Which of the following words comes closest to its meaning?

Afraid, words, large, animal, bird.

The correct answer is animal.

The number of correct answers to a list of such word definitions represents a person’s verbal intelligence.

Is verbal intelligence going up or down? Do younger cohorts of adults demonstrate better verbal knowledge than older cohorts? Or, is it the other way around?

The main finding shows a clear downward trend: “Overall,” the authors write, “the results point to the conclusion that despite their higher levels of schooling, post-World War II cohorts have scored systematically lower on cognitive tests compared to those born earlier.”

Declining vocabulary knowledge does not reflect “word obsolescence” (words going out of fashion). Age itself is not a factor. Aging doesn’t change vocabulary knowledge, the authors report. Word knowledge doesn’t vary much over a person’s lifespan. And, words on the GSS survey haven’t gotten more difficult over time. If anything, they have gotten easier.

Do your children have lower vocabulary knowledge than you do?

Are you surprised by the downward trend in American's verbal knowledge?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.


Erik Kengaard

Sat, Dec 1, 2012 : 4:32 p.m.

I just looked at what I think are the results on the GSS web site. 83% correct on this one sample question. The 16% error rate may be largely explained by the large increase in ESL population over the past 40 years. Or not.

Morris Thorpe

Fri, Nov 30, 2012 : 3:48 p.m.

Wayne, Thanks for the consistently interesting content. Unlike other contributors, you do not submit half-, uh, don't want to be deleted here, half-baked articles that are either flame bait or regurgitation. Speaking of verbal knowledge, I apparently spelled regurgitation correctly on the first try (I expected the red squiggly underline to come up with each letter I after "reg" but it did not.) Am I surprised by the downward trend? Only by the speed at which it's taking place. It is remarkable.