HomeNeuroscienceDid the Victorians have sooner reactions? – Thoughts Hacks

Did the Victorians have sooner reactions? – Thoughts Hacks

Psychologists have been measuring response occasions since earlier than psychology existed, and they’re nonetheless a staple of cognitive psychology experiments right this moment. Sometimes psychologists search for a distinction within the time it takes individuals to reply to stimuli below completely different circumstances as proof of variations in how cognitive processing happens in these circumstances.

Galton, the well-known eugenicist and statistician, collected a big information set (n=3410) of so referred to as ‘easy response occasions’ within the final years of the nineteenth century.  Galton’s curiosity was moderately completely different from most fashionable psychologists – he was excited by measures of response time as a indicator of particular person variations. Galton’s principle was that variations in processing pace may underlie variations in intelligence, and possibly these variations might be effectively assessed by recording individuals’s response occasions.

Galton’s information creates an attention-grabbing alternative – are individuals right this moment, over 100 years later, sooner or slower than Galton’s individuals? Should you imagine Galton’s principle, the reply wouldn’t simply inform you if you happen to could be prone to win in a quick-draw  contest with a Victorian gunslinger, it might additionally present an perception into generational modifications in cognitive operate extra broadly.

Response time [RT] information offers an attention-grabbing counterpoint to probably the most well-known historic change in cognitive operate – the era on era improve in IQ scores, referred to as the Flynn Impact. The Flynn Impact surprises two varieties of individuals – those that have a look at “youngsters right this moment” and know by intuition that they’re much less well mannered, much less clever and fewer disciplined their very own era (this has been documented in each era again to at the very least Historic Greece), and people who have a look at youngsters right this moment and know by prior theoretical commitments that every era must be dumber than the earlier (as a result of extra clever individuals have fewer kids, is the concept).

While the Flynn Impact contradicts the concept that individuals are getting dumber, some hope does appear to lie within the response time information. Possibly Victorian individuals actually did have sooner response occasions! A number of analysis papers  (1, 2) have tried to match Galton’s outcomes to extra fashionable research, a few of which tried to make use of the the identical equipment in addition to the identical technique of measurement. Right here’s Silverman (2010):

the RTs obtained by younger adults in 14 research revealed from 1941 on have been in contrast with the RTs obtained by younger adults in a research performed by Galton within the late 1800s. With one exception, the newer research obtained RTs longer than these obtained by Galton. The chance that these variations in outcomes are as a result of defective timing devices is taken into account however deemed unlikely.

Woodley et al (2015) have a useful graph (Galton’s consequence proven on the underside left):

(Woodley et al, 2015, Determine 1, “Secular SRT slowing throughout 4 massive, consultant research from the UK spanning a century. Bubble-size is proportional to pattern measurement. Mixed N = 6622.”)

So the distinction is barely ~20 milliseconds (i.e. one fiftieth of a second) over 100 years, however in response time phrases that’s a hefty chunk – it means fashionable individuals are about 10% slower!

What are we to make of this? Usually we wouldn’t put a lot weight on a single research, even one with 3000 individuals, however there aren’t many options. It isn’t as if we will have entry to younger adults born within the nineteenth century to verify if the consequence replicates. It’s a disgrace there aren’t extra intervening research, so we might check the cheap prediction that individuals within the Thirties must be about midway between the Victorian and fashionable individuals.

And, even when we imagine this datum, what does it imply? A real decline in cognitive capability? Extra cognitive load on different features? Motivational modifications? Modifications in how experiments are run or approached by individuals? I’m not giving up on the youngsters simply but.


  • Irwin, W. S. (2010). Easy response time: it’s not what it was once. American Journal of Psychology, 123(1), 39-50.
  • Woodley, M. A., Te Nijenhuis, J., & Murphy, R. (2013). Have been the Victorians cleverer than us? The decline normally intelligence estimated from a meta-analysis of the slowing of straightforward response time. Intelligence, 41(6), 843-850.
  • Woodley, M. A, te Nijenhuis, J., & Murphy, R. (2015). The Victorians have been nonetheless sooner than us. Commentary: Elements influencing the latency of straightforward response time. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 452.


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