The Big Question: Uncovering the link between ‘general cultural knowledge’ and IQ

We all like to believe that we are smart, or at the very least, have a level of intelligence that is above average. Intelligence is an important part of how we, as a society, value individuals. Intelligence, or the appearance of it, is often a key criterion that schools look for when admitting students; colleges and universities rely on it to give scholarships, grants, and awards; and employers look for signs of intelligence when selecting the best candidate for a job.

The important role that intelligence plays in society means that it is important to understand how we measure ‘intelligence’ and, more importantly, how these measurements can be improved.

IQ as a measure of intelligence

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

One of the most basic ways we measure intelligence is by testing an individual’s IQ, or intelligence quotient. This score is typically found by presenting the individual with a series of tests to determine their ‘mental age’, then dividing their mental age by their ‘chronological age’.

This system is designed to determine not only an individual’s critical thinking and reasoning abilities but also to provide a simple way to compare multiple individuals of varying ages and mental abilities.

And while for many practical applications the IQ system provides a reasonable, flexible, and simple solution, it is not without its flaws.

Our understanding of intelligence has evolved

As we learn more about the human brain and cognitive abilities, we are beginning to understand that there are multiple types of intelligence and that intelligence can be affected by things such as culture, education background, and even our environment.

It is often said that IQ scores are great at testing a ‘specific type of intelligence in a specific type of person in a specific type of culture’. Much of the tests, science, and research that underpin the IQ scoring system was developed, implemented, and reviewed by scientists who are predominantly Western, educated, white, and male—an issue that is common throughout many areas of psychology and cognitive science.

The problem arises when we try to test the intelligence of individuals who may not have had the same background. Individuals who were not educated at ‘western’ schools or universities; individuals whose life experience may be so completely different from those who designed the tests that their intelligence cannot be properly understood through traditional IQ tests.

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Photo by Bestbe Models from Pexels
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Photo by Jamal Yahya from Pexels
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Photo by Teddy Joseph from Pexels

How can the cultural background and knowledge of these individuals affect their outcomes on intelligence tests?

Exploring the link between knowledge and intelligence

If an IQ test were to ask individuals to name the 50 states in the USA, its results would quite probably be skewed to show that Americans were smarter than the rest of the world. If the test, however, asked questions about how to calculate the score of a Cricket match, those very same Americans might be labeled as ‘underperformers.’

While these are intentionally silly examples, it is easy to see how the general knowledge that an individual has due to their location, culture, and past experience can affect their scores—and, importantly, how important it is to create measures of intelligence which as unbiased, culturally-neutral, and universally relevant.

It was with this in mind that Scientists in Spain have developed a research project known as ‘The Big Question’ (in Spanish, ‘La Gran Pregunta’) to investigate the role that ‘general cultural knowledge’ has on intelligence scores, and how location affected the population’s average scores in cultural knowledge.

 What is ‘The Big Question’?

The Big Question is a research project devised and coordinated by Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, director of the Cognitive Science Center (Centro de Ciencias Cognitivas, or C3, in Spanish)  of  Nebrija University, with participation from teams of researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the  Rovira i Virgili University designed to study the variations in the cultural knowledge of the people living in the various Autonomous Communities in Spain.

Thanks to the data collected in the project, the research teams will be able to draw a scientifically sound map of shared knowledge that will serve as a baseline of general culture knowledge in Spain.

The project is presented as a quiz containing general knowledge questions about different categories in which each player tests their level of general cultural knowledge.

There are 37 different categories that address thematic areas such as zoology, astronomy, inventions and discoveries, architecture, or mythology and folklore, among others. The platform is fed by a list of 1,300 questions, and, after completing a short questionnaire on basic sociodemographic data, each player is presented with a random selection of 60 questions each time they enter to play a game.

In the first two weeks that the platform was live, more than 36,000 games were completed, with players from all the autonomous communities. At the moment, the average score on the test at the national level is 60%, with some differences between communities.

Average scores per autonomous community. The Big Question.
Average scores per autonomous community. The Big Question.

Once the data cleansing procedure has been applied, the provisional data show an unequal distribution between territories, even though these differences never exceed 5%.

The average of correct answers per Autonomous Community ranges from 57% to 62%. Above the average we find Galicia, Castile and León, Principality of Asturias, La Rioja, Aragon, Community of Madrid, Basque Country, Cantabria and Valencian Community. The communities that scored below the average were Extremadura, Region of Murcia, Balearic Islands, Autonomous Community of Navarre, Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, Canary Islands, and Catalonia.

The science and questions of the quiz

The history of databases on general culture is still quite recent and more scarce than some might think. In the early 80s, Nelson and Narens found that there was no database that defined which facts were likely to be considered general culture, nor whether there was data more difficult to remember than others.

They themselves compiled a list of 300 questions they obtained from books, atlases, colleagues, friends, and other sources of information they considered relevant. Students from two U.S. universities answered these questions and collected different cognitive and metacognitive measures. Over the following decades, these questions were used in countless research in cognitive science.

However, and as is normal, with the passage of time this compendium of facts and data that were very relevant or important in the 80s were changing. Society advances and changes, and with it cultural knowledge relevant to each historical context.

This led a group of scientists in 2013 to review the original set of questions and see how it had evolved over the past three decades.

They administered the questions with some changes to almost 700 students from different universities and, although there were some changes between the general knowledge demonstrated in both experiments (for example, in 1980 only 7% of the sample knew that Baghdad was the capital of Iraq, and in 2013 this value increased to 47%), the authors concluded that the set was still valid.

More recently, and in order to explore whether the results of the North American tests could be generalized to Spain, a team of Spanish scientists decided to test the knowledge of almost 300 participants from two universities. When they analyzed the consistency in the answers given to the same questions by students from different countries, they found a very high correlation between the two groups, which would indicate great intercultural stability.

However, differences were also found in some aspects of knowledge between Americans and Spaniards (for example, 97% of the Spanish sample knew that Venice is the name of the Italian city best known for its canals, compared to 46% of the North American sample).

All these studies, and similar ones in various countries, have involved a very limited number of questions. In addition, these studies have generally focused on the university population of young adults, who can hardly be representative of the whole society.

But today, thanks to new technologies and the use of the Internet, and following in the wake of large projects that have allowed to collect data from hundreds of thousands of people, ‘The Big Question’ is allowing scientists to create the most current and complete database on data and facts of general culture, thus creating a Trivial Pursuit of national dimensions and with a scientific foundation.

General knowledge and intelligence

There is no scientific consensus on questions such as whether general knowledge is part of a type of intelligence, or whether it is an indicator or a measure of it.

Some intelligence tests have sections of general knowledge, and many authors claim that this knowledge would be equivalent or belong to crystallized intelligence, that is, to what we already know (the facts, data, and experiences acquired and memorized over the years).

Others argue that their relationship is greater with reasoning and working memory, these aspects are more related to fluid intelligence, which refers to the mental ability to apply reasoning and logic to various new situations that will lead us to acquire new knowledge.

Be that as it may, it should be noted that there are authors who suggest that the results of a possible test of general knowledge sufficiently updated, relevant to the participants, and properly psychometrized, could be considered as a fairly reasonable representative value of intelligence.

General knowledge is highly relevant and informative in view of the expectations of the future of work and society. It is absolutely necessary to arrive at a clear description of what this general knowledge is, what aspects it covers, and what variables are the ones that modulate it.

In a changing world with a strong global and intercultural character, advances will come hand in hand with projects that promote knowledge, culture, and scientific collaboration. With that philosophy was born “The Big Question”.