Cambridge Analytica, Daniel Kahneman, the anti-Flynn effect and education

Every Facebook user should be aware of the business model of ‘free’ social media type services. It is to collect personal data and then sell it for the purpose of individually targeted adverts. If you interrogate Google, within hours you will get an advert on your Facebook page linked to your Google query. It is no use getting upset about this as it is in the Ts & Cs and has long been accepted

However, the Cambridge Analytica scandal crosses a new threshold in terms of the use of personal data ‘farmed’ from the likes of Facebook. You can view the Channel Four News expose here

The collection of sophisticated personal information to sell on to unscrupulous political campaign teams so that they then target emotionally tuned fake news and propaganda onto susceptible individuals to gain their votes would be a serious corruption of the democratic process – if it is allowed to operate it could become a fatal flaw.

The ultimate defence surely lies in having a well-educated population that is immune to such attacks. This is illuminated by the work of Daniel Kahneman and his identification of System 1 fast, gut thinking, and System 2 slow, cerebral thinking. This article links Kahneman’s powerful ideas with the failings of our marketised education system.

And this article explains why such attacks on the democratic process would be far less effective in countries whose education systems emphasise cognitive development rather than the passing of crude exams for market accountability purposes.

The Flynn effect is the well established pattern of national IQ scores rising over time in countries with effective education systems. The anti-Flynn effect is the name given to the more recent evidence that in the last two decades it has gone into reverse in a number of countries including the UK, with profound implications including that our national IQ could be in serious decline and/or that our national educational system and the ‘Facebook culture’ are now increasingly inhibiting the cognitive growth of our school students and the adults that emerge from our education system.

This recent article by James Flynn himself and Michael Shayer, both internationally respected academics, explains the issues.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, raw IQ test scores were increasing at about 15 points per decade. According to the Flynn and Shayer paper, they are now declining, possibly at an even faster rate, the turning point being 1995.

In the paper, Michael Shayer reports that the decline in the incidence of Piagetian Formal Operational thinking in the UK population is dramatically higher than the decline recorded by IQ tests. The following are quotes from the paper. Piagetian Formal Operational Thinking corresponds to Kahneman’s System 2 Thinking.

After our analysis, we will suggest two tentative hypotheses. First, trends on conventional tests show those at most risk of IQ decline are high school students aged 14 to 18. However, Piagetian results in Britain imply losses at earlier ages. Second, Piagetian tests signal something extra: conflicting trends between top scorers (those at the highest or formal level of cognitive development) and those in the early stages of the next level (concrete generalization). Large losses at the formal level may be accompanied by gains at the concrete level. We will argue that conventional IQ tests can show this phenomenon but are less likely to do so.

 The Piagetian results are particularly ominous. Looming over all is their message that the pool of those who reach the top level of cognitive performance is being decimated: fewer and fewer people attain the formal level at which they can think in terms of abstractions and develop their capacity for deductive logic and systematic planning. They also reveal that something is actually targeting that level with special effect, rather than simply reducing its numbers in accord with losses over the curve as a whole. We have given our reason as to why the Piagetian tests are sensitive to this phenomenon in a way that conventional tests are not. Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity. They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset? During the 20th century, society escalated its skill demands and IQ rose. During the 21st century, if society reduces its skill demands, IQ will fall. Nonetheless, no one would welcome decay in the body politic.

 Since the Brexit referendum there has been considerable media coverage of socially deprived northern towns with a high proportion of ‘leave’ voters. These towns have been characterised by the government as having poor schools that have created an ‘attainment gap’. This ‘gap’ is in reality a mean cognitive ability deficit caused not by individual schools but by the marketised education system.

TV News programmes have regularly sent reporters onto the streets to do vox pop interviews with the locals. It is hard not to be shocked by the poor quality (regardless of the side taken) of popular responses, where thoughtful rationality is in dire short supply, and trite phrases unrelated to evidence, predominate.

It is also a fact that that it was overwhelmingly the less well educated sectors of the US population that voted for Trump. This fits with the likelihood that individually targeted social media propaganda is more likely to be successful with Kahneman System 1 (Piaget Concrete Operational), rather than System 2 (Piaget Formal Operational) thinkers.

Which is a powerful democratic argument for reforming the UK education system to prioritise cognitive development over SATs and GCSE testing designed primarily to drive the marketised school performance accountability regime brought about by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which preceded the 1995 date of the emergence of the anti-Flynn Effect by just seven years.

So what would such a reformed education system look like? This is the main subject of the articles on my website and the arguments and evidence presented in my book.

However, a strong insight can also be gained through the work and publications of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

There are two threads that are becoming increasingly dominant in EEF research into effective learning approaches.

The first is ‘metacognition’. This arises from Piagetian developmental, concept-based models of learning in which students are encouraged to explore their personal mental models of problems and phenomena and so refine and upgrade them. Einstein’s ‘thought experiments’ come to mind, although everybody at every age can develop their cognition through this process.

The second thread draws on the work of Vygotsky in emphasising the importance of the social context of learning and the power of ‘group work’ that requires the expressing, discussing, evaluating and challenging of the individual metcognitively created conceptual frameworks of the group members.

A recent article by Debra Kidd describes effective approaches to achieving this.

The following websites also promote and explain the sort of cognitively developmental education needed to increase the cognitive sophistication of the population and so defend democracy.

Welcome to More Than a Score

Comments on my articles are welcomed.

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6 Responses to Cambridge Analytica, Daniel Kahneman, the anti-Flynn effect and education

  1. John Mountford says:

    Roger, you are to be congratulated on your tenacity. You have been unrelenting in your efforts to bring to the public’s attention exactly how successive governments, through blind conviction that they know best, have blighted education reforms, exposing millions of young people to a less than third-rate education. I recently re-read your book and find it hard to understand why the evidence presented therein has not been instrumental in helping get our education system back on track. While this situation persists, ALL our young people fail to get an education that identifies and develops their individual needs.

    However, to the blog in hand.

    Several days ago Nancy Bailey posted the following:

    I took the opportunity to respond and tie it in to the unfolding Facebook debacle. You are absolutely right to connect this story with your campaign to change the face of education (pardon the pun), here in the UK. There seems to be a sleeping sickness that has beset the media, parents and educationalists alike. Our leaders, of all political persuasions, have consistently failed our young people, as your important work amply proves. However, your message, and that of others of like mind, continues to fall on deaf ears. My own frustration with the danger of allowing the status quo to continue still consume me. With that said, I know that the situation has to change sooner rather than later. To that end, I offer the following:

    Is there any way of obtaining funding from some philanthropist with a vision to match your own, who could be approached to support providing all serving MPs, the heads of all the professional teaching organisations and the CEOs of the major media outlets with a copy of your book?

    The need for change is escalating. The failures of others to respond to the evidence and to challenge current thinking in this vital area is a blight on our nation. You are aware of my own immediate solution to the current problems, namely the creation of a National Commission for Education, charged with reshaping education free from party political interference. The longer the impasse continues, the greater the problems will be. Failing to establish an education system to make ALL people as globally intelligent as they can be, so that they can navigate their way through the complexities of modern living and live fulfilling lives in the process, is not an option.


  2. Thank you John

    The article by Nancy Bailey, that you provide a link to, is so important and relevant.

    I am copying part of your comment here.

    “I am outraged over what is happening with the proposed use of SEL standards in the States as you report. I feel horrified that this kind of practice could be employed in the way you describe. Apart from what this will mean for children there in the US I fear that the stupidly unscrupulous political leaders in the UK will do as they often do and try to replicate this here. The whole notion is wrong and here’s why:

    1 Children, as they grow, clearly need to develop their social and emotional selves. However, this is best done in caring homes and compassionate classrooms and schools where there is structure and support to allow them the scope to develop self awareness and compassion for others. This is a process that cannot be meaningfully summed up in buzz-words and translated into quantifiable data. The suggestion that this could possibly be in children’s best interests is quite obscene.

    2 Ordinary people have been ill-served and slow to understand the implications of allowing others to have access to their data. The shocking story unfolding here and in the States is testimony to this fact. We can only hope that the companies and individuals like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica will not be allowed to use their corporate muscle to escape the consequences of any misuse and abuse of personal data, mined without their consent. I, for one, will not be holding my breath in this hope.”


  3. John Mountford says:

    Well, Roger, it seems we are not the only ones looking to orchestrate a ‘wake-up call’ for all those claiming to act in the collective interest, especially in relation to the reform of education. Maybe this little gem will add to the debate, here and in the US, as I have copied this to Nancy. Maybe some synchronicity at work here!


  4. Very good, a gem indeed.


  5. John Mountford says:

    Roger, I believe it is important to highlight the Anti-Flynn Effect in relation to your original article about Cambridge Analytica/Facebook. It was, after all, written in response to concerns over our democracy, protecting ourselves from exploitation and the vital role education has to play in this context. Cognitive development, as you and others point out, is central to everyone’s ability to play a full part in society and to achieve their individual potential. This surely is the prime focus of an effective education system. Set against this is the threat posed by the prevailing reality, referred to in your letter to the Education Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield – “The current high stakes SATs regime actually inhibits the development of cognitive ability.”

    But the problems for our young people neither begin nor end with SATs.

    I followed the link to the Flynn/Shayer paper. It was very enlightening. As regards the impact of dysgenic selection, they had this to say:

    “It is true that at the end we speak of prospects over the 21st century in sociological terms but only because social factors look predictable while dysgenic selection concerning the future is harder to anticipate and measure.”

    I suggest that while dysgenic selection is certainly harder to anticipate and measure, it is not actually because social factors look more predictable but because they are in fact more malleable, affording us opportunities to change lives. If we accept this premise, specific interventions can be employed to craft learning opportunities and implement teaching strategies that actually promote cognitive development.

    At the end of their paper, Flynn and Shayer have this crucial message to share with their readers:

    “Capitalising on people’s intelligence, rather than worrying about their intelligence, is the most important thing.”

    Is it time in our country to divert our attention from weighing the pig??

    The simple prompt from Flynn and Shayer should lead us to change the variables that we know can promote learning that sticks, and enhances cognitive growth for all abilities. It is the only meaningful way forward. This is the reason we have to convince others to change the current education paradigm.


  6. Thank you John.

    I absolutely agree with you.


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