How USA General Knowledge Has Changed, 1980 – 2012

By Neuroskeptic | July 6, 2013 7:15 am

“General knowledge” is the body of facts that most people know and are assumed to know. But how general is it? How does it change over time?

A lovely little study from Kent State University has revealed how American students in 2012 performed on a comprehensive test of general knowledge that was developed in 1980. By comparing the results on each question with the original scores from college students three decades ago, the changes in knowledge were made clear.

Here’s the paper: General knowledge norms: Updated and expanded from the Nelson and Narens (1980) norms

A lot of the changes were unsurprising. Many of the questions concern 1970s pop culture and it’s to be expected that no-one know them today.

However, other results are more interesting. Knowledge of hockey has increased: out of 300 items, a question whose answer is “puck” used to be #16 from the top in terms of easiness, but now it’s #3. Likewise, migraines are much better-known now – the migraine question went up from #25 to #6, perhaps reflecting better awareness of the disease.

Curiously, knowledge that cheetahs are the fastest land animal has rocketed from #93 to #10. Maybe reflects the success of the Discovery Channel?

Some things have been forgotten, however. That Antarctica is the largest desert on Earth (it is) was #50 on the 1980 knowledge charts. Now it’s down to #249. That Franklin discovered lightning to be a form of electricity, and that Paris is the capital of France, have also slipped down the list.

The wrong answers were also quite fun. 30% of people thought Baghdad was the capital of Afghanistan (wonder why?), while 21% believed Budapest to be the capital of India (maybe they thought ‘Buddhist’?). 12% thought Mount Everest was in the Appalachians.

11% thought dynamite is called dynamite because it was invented by a Mr Dynamite, and my favourite, 7% said that the layer of fat that whales have is called “flubber”.

ResearchBlogging.orgSarah K. Tauber et al (2013). General knowledge norms: Updated and expanded from the Nelson and Narens (1980) norms Behav Res DOI: 10.3758/s13428-012-0307-9

  • Psyclic

    Correlation of “general knowledge” with displacement of books by TV then by internet? Or would that contain too many degrees of freedom?

  • Buddy199

    11% picked Mr. Dynamite, probably assuming his first name was Napoleon. I wonder how many picked J. J. on “Good Times”?

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    Correlation of “general
    knowledge” with displacement of books by TV then by internet? Or would
    that contain too many degrees of freedom?

  • Matthew Kalik

    Someone please tell me what college students didn”t know Paris is the capitol of France? Glad they get better jobs right off the bat just because i couldn”t afford to stay in school. They are obviously a lot smarter than I took them for. smh

    • Chris C

      Paris is the CAPITAL of France, but it does have some capitol buildings in it. In fact, it also has some capital buildings in it.

      • Richard Selby

        I see what you did there

  • Wouter

    The wrong answers are just hilarious:

    Q: What is the largest planet in the solar system?
    A: The sun

    Q: What is the name of the extint reptiles known as “terrible lizards”?
    A: Dragon

    Q: What is the last name of the man who proposed the theory of relativity?
    A: Newton

    Q: What is the longest river in South America?
    A: Nile

    Q: What is the last name of Batman’s secret identity in the Batman comics?
    A: Clark/Clark Kent

    I guess what struck me the most, is the current American generation’s lack of geographical knowledge. Though the world has gotten ‘smaller’, I guess it’s still a pretty big and scary place for Americans.

    • Neuroskeptic

      “Clark Kent”…hang on though… maybe Clark Kent is just another of Bruce Wayne’s secret identities! Imagine what an awesome comic that would be.

    • teknowh0re

      Wow…those are pathetic.

      • Don’t Even Try It!

        Yes, and they are our future leaders!

    • ECM

      For Americans? Surely you jest? Knowledge of geography has *collapsed* across the Western world and is hardly a problem limited to residents of the USA.

  • Brad Allan

    George Bush Jr.,pulled hundred`s of million`s of dollar`s from the American education system; to help support his war mongering! With the support of his “sheep-like” citizens. Check the global scores and decline in position, that the U.S. now sits in. No longer a leader.

    • RogerSweeny

      Federal spending on education went up very substantially during the
      presidency of George W. Bush. He may be a war monger but far from
      pulling money out of the American education system, he put
      thousands of millions of dollars more in.

      • Brad Allan

        Point taken; however, the reality of his “no child left behind” was ineffective and poorly planned. The whole notion to bridge that gap without any oversight, or substandard administration was a huge waste of money. In hindsight all it did was give all students a passing grade, regardless of their abilities. Look again at your global test results.

        • RogerSweeny

          It certainly was “ineffective and poorly planned.” Of course, you can say that about many things that governments do, from the invasion of Iraq to the Affordable Care Act. Part of the problem with NCLB was that it was a compromise, with parts working against each other (like ACA). It was even a bipartisan compromise. The official authors were Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and John Boehner (R-OH). The final vote in favor was almost unanimous, 384-45 in the House and 91-8 in the Senate.

        • Buddy199

          In hindsight all it did was give all students a passing grade, regardless of their abilities
          Maybe you should bring that point up with the education unions whose apparent mission is to fight standards and accountability.

    • Buddy199

      Your lack of education is showing; spending went up under Bush. He actually spent much more on education that Clinton did, yet no criticism there, or of Obama’s war-mongering subverting education today.

      • Brad Allan

        I understand that, my only statement was how ineffective that protocol was; idiot. If you read earlier posts, you would have seen this. Furthermore I`m sure I carry more of an education and a higher I.Q., than you. Keep up your antics stupid American. Discover why the majority of the world dislikes you and your fellow citizens. Too many of you are arrogant, self-centered, egomaniacs; only interested in achieving your own agenda. Why not travel the world with an American flag on your backpack. See how long you last! The World is closing in on you, felling claustrophobic yet? Bush Jr., increased that perception!

        • Buddy199

          Yes, poor us…the world hates us. :( Except of course, when they want our money. Or a few hundred thousand of our soldiers lives every so often to save them from dictators they are too spineless to defend themselves against. Of course, the 1 inch deep reflexive recycled Marxism you’ve been regurgitating since college really showcases your intellectual depth and surely impresses your toothless, cirrhotic mates as “the smart guy” at the corner pub.

        • teknowh0re

          lol relax weirdo. Unbunch your panties and relax. =)

        • teknowh0re

          Brad Allan I honestly dont think you know enough about anyone posting on here to make those assumptions. Besides, there are senseless, pathetic egomaniacs in EVERY country, right?

        • Teresa Yeisley

          Thanks to Ovomit for the “perception of America” as a ball-less wonder. His “smart power” has made America the laughing-stock of the world…heck, even NORTH KOREA is threatening us…Oh, and his Sec of State (both of them, are traitors to America)

        • Behind_You1

          Furthermore I`m sure I carry more of an education and a higher I.Q., than you.

          Yeah, and I’m sure you fart in our general direction.


        • M_1

          Given your tenuous grasp of the most elementary rules of grammar, it appears your opinion of your own capabilities is somewhat blown out of proportion, Brad.

    • Gregor McHardy

      Looks like knowledge of grammar has gone downhill as well. Last I checked the plural forms of hundred, million, and dollar don’t have apostrophes.

      • SeeToSee

        Citizen’s grammar cop arrest!!

    • d1stewart

      With your respect for facts, you are probably among those not knowing that the capital of France is Paris, knowing that Baghdad is the capital of Afghanistan, and knowing that Buddistpest is the capital of India. Also, knowing that George W. Bush is George Bush Jr.–which, of course, he isn’t.

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  • The_Bishop_of_D

    The quality of American primary and secondary education (“el-hi”) has been in decline for at least 50 year. By some measures it has been in decline since the end of WWII.

    Taxpayers turn down adequate educational funding at almost every opportunity and then wonder why we’ve been creating generations of ignorant, poorly trained youth.

    The business community won’t support education through adequate taxation. yet it pushes legislation to increase the availability of H1-B visas at every opportunity.

    Does anyone else wonder what’s wrong with this picture?

    • EquusMtn

      Bingo. This is why so many people can be convinced that climate change
      isn’t real/not caused by human activity, or that evolution and
      “intelligent” design are equally valid theories. What really needs to be taught is critical thinking.

      • Burn_the_Witch

        Applying adequate critical thought would lead one to the conclusion you don’t fully grasp the concept.

        You rightfully criticize the those who consider ID and evolution to be equally valid scientific theories, but then fail to apply the same scientific principles to Climate Science and the various theories associated with it.

    • David Gillies

      If throwing money at education were the answer, the US would have the best-performing schoolchildren in the world. Education is not ‘under-funded’ by any stretch of the imagination. Or are you seriously suggesting that less is spent (both in inflation-adjusted and gross figures) than 50 years ago? Teachers bear part of the blame (and also, a fortiori, the unions,) as do parents, politicians and the pupils themselves.

      • Burn_the_Witch

        Thank goodness you chimed in with a dose of facts and reality. Saved me the trouble!

    • Teresa Yeisley

      We are spending more per student than at ANY other time in our nation’s history–why do you think throwing MONEY at the problem will fix the problem? Heck, I am of the generation that saw the sputnick and “new math”. Good grief, we were the BEST educated at that time…course we didn’t take a whole frigging month to honor one particular man, and have to have all kinds of ceremonies and assemblies to take out of the school day. Our teachers didn’t take a 1/2 day off during week to gather for who know what “educational” benefit…We didn’t have to go with less time for recess–we had home ec, shop, and art and music–now those things are practically non-existant!

      • The_Bishop_of_D

        I’d like to see what the data are when the amount of money we spend per student is adjusted for inflation, and the administrative overhead is subtracted out.

        • Ben Franklin

          Teresa is correct. They measure all of these things in constant dollars. And yeah, administrative bloat is bad but that is not the main problem.

      • Richard Selby

        When did schools have a whole “month to honor one particular man,” which month and what man?

        • Teresa Yeisley

          Guess you never heard of MLK?

          • Richard Selby

            Yeah, but his day (a federal holiday) is in January. And there isn’t a whole month to honor Martin Luther King. Just one day, not all thirty one days of January are for him.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Didn’t you hear? It was just last month… in the alternate reality from which no facts can enter, and only internet comments can escape.

          People get there by falling through a Can’t-Accept-The-President-Is-Black Hole.

          • Ezekiel1776

            It’s the President’s race — of course that’s the problem here! Never mind *100%* of what she Teresa said…

            Only 42 more months of Neuroskeptic’s racial nihilism to go! I’m counting the days…

    • Ben Franklin

      We spend more per pupil than we ever have and get worse results. We spend more than most developed countries and get worse results. Every study shows that spending more in the current system does not get us better results. Yet people are ignorant enough to think throwing money at the problem will be the cure. That only works in the private sector where results are linked to demand and the resources it provides. It obviously does not work in a compulsory system where people cannot use market forces to bankrupt the bad schools and enrich the good ones or to drive poor teachers out of the profession and attract better ones.

      It is obvious that pouring more money into a broken system is not the answer. If you forced people in a given area to all eat at a single government run restaurant your results would be just as appalling as they are in forcing them to go to certain schools. That is because you are denying them the ability to have a functioning educational marketplace where the incentives are proper rather than perverse. The current system is a political one that is more concerned with warehousing and indoctrinating than it is in educating. It is also one size fits all and does not acknowledge any differences in propensity, ability or the desirability of learning in one area as opposed to another.

      In short, if you wanted to make sure people remained ignorant you would come up with a system very much like the one we have and let the government run it.

      Economic illiteracy is at an all time high as evidenced by the results of the last few elections. People think they can vote themselves a never ending supply of benefits and it will end in something other than disaster. There was a time when such foolishness was frowned upon, but now people are proud of it, and it is actively encouraged by our own government with money that has either been confiscated from us by force or borrowed from generations yet unborn who will have to pay the bill. Note that if you wish your child to have a decent education you must pay for it twice. Once as a tithe through your taxes to the teacher’s unions and then again to a private school for the actual education itself.

      Luckily, we are on the cusp of being able to make an end run around the government education system. With the advent of the internet and online courses people will eventually be able to receive an education in any subject of their choice for free, or so close to free as to make little difference. The only thing standing in the way is the government and their outdated accreditation system. The NEA and the government are standing firmly athwart the road to progress just as they have always done since for them it is all about protecting their nut. Why would we want to enrich the very people who broke the current system when we can have a better system for less money with more choice? It is madness.

      • Elisabeth

        My understanding is that the international tests should be taken with a pinch of salt because the U.S. mainstreams a lot of low-achieving students who simply wouldn’t take the tests elsewhere in the world.

      • The_Bishop_of_D

        The data contradict your position. In inflation adjusted dollars, the spending per pupil during the el-hi years is virtually unchanged since 1985.

        Money is not the issue. It’s a straw dog intended to divert attention from more fundamental issues, including the disaster known as “social promotion.”

        If you really want our youth to come out of the educational system actually knowing something and, more importantly, functionally literate, start with eliminating social promotion, restore the power of teachers to flunk underperforming students, and hold them back if they don’t achieve grade level performance.

        Internationally recognized educational standards might be a good start. What to do when our poorly educated students fall short is a different problem, indeed.

        The older I get, the more I favor something like analogous to “three time loser” in criminal law being adapted to educational standards: hold underperforming students back. If they don’t achieve grade level performance three times, the educational system is done with them.

    • koblog

      Public education/propaganda/indoctrination has achieved exactly what its designers intended since Dewey: to produce a docile, easily controlled public ignorant of its own history and unable to write or do basic math — the perfect Obama voter.

      50% of the Los Angeles Unified School District drop out.

      Meanwhile, unionized teachers retire with golden parachutes.

      Mission accomplished.

      • The_Bishop_of_D

        Actually, statistics tend to support the proposition that “conservative” voters are more poorly educated, less well trained, more likely to vote in lockstep. and much easier to lead around by the nose than “liberal” voters.

        Given the general principle that one should exercise the franchise from the perspective of enlightened self interest, it follows that the vast majority of the electorate should be voting against the conservative agenda, given its presently blatantly bias toward the economic elite. Since this is not the case, it is reasonable to conclude that the brainwashing foisted upon the American electorate by the conservative (actually reactionary) economic elite has been largely successful.

        The shortcoming of the strategy is its lack of consideration of long term consequences. The mathematics of self organizing nonlinear dynamic systems demonstrates conclusively that the present bias towards increased economic inequality in unsustainable. The conservative elite of this country have sewn the seeds of economic collapse through their excessive greed.

        As the comment originally ascribed to Clint Murcheson recognizes, “money is a lot like horse manure: you spread it around and it does a lot of good, but if you pile too much of it in one place, it stinks like hell.”

      • Neuroskeptic

        It’s a strange and sad mind that blames Dewey, of all people, for the problems in modern American society. Oh wait, probably Keynes too, right?

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  • Geo Velo

    Perhaps one of the questions should have been ‘how many states are there in the USA?’

    57 would be correct.

    • D M

      That was funny.

  • John Schenkel

    The deterioration of the dialog in this blog is a good example of the problems engendered by the political control of education. Yes, there are serious problems with our educational system. First and foremost is the political and bureaucratic control of education. $$$ must be followed by accountability, accountability must be measured by standards, standards must be objective. This results in an imaginary assembly line: students are shaped by standardized processes into the ideal educated human. This will never work because students are not standardized to start with. Our health care system is collapsing under the same political/bureaucratic weight because patients are not standardized. I call this MacMedicine: if you don’t need what’s on the menu, you are S.O.L.

    Another problem is the “No Child Left Behind” act (how could you vote against that?) which mandates that schools devote most of their resources to the least talented students. This is an excellent example of how political process is not constrained by reality.
    Back when academic freedom trumped politics, we had the best educational system in the world. Yes, there were problems with that also, but accountability and standardization have improved nothing and have ended up being little more than a mechanism for bureaucracy to siphon off resources.
    And I am very frustrated and angry about the education that my children have received which I consider to be a process that stifles creativity and intellectual initiative. Teaching to the test is best mastered by short-term memorization, a process that does not build on itself and ultimately results in paralyzing boredom. Bureaucrats cannot assess teachers, only some students and some parents are able. We need an educational process that can impart enthusiasm. Good luck with measuring that!

  • Aaron1960

    PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Are we really getting what we’re paying for?

  • JR48

    We throw plenty of money at education, too bad most of it goes to the unions or administration…smart boards not smart curriculum…

  • Moribund Cadaver

    The problem with the broken state of American public education is this: it’s not working, it has degenerated, and the money is being spent poorly. On the subject of indoctrination, the current status quo is more indoctrination by neglect rather than conspiracy.

    This situation however will be used by conservative pundits to pitch a story about how it all could be saved by turning education into a private marketplace. Which would just so happen to allow powerful forces in various conservative states to effectively buy the curriculum and push their own indoctrination very much with active intent. Do not forget, these are the people who – no matter what script they use in internet comments about “knowing the facts” and “doing the math” – want to eliminate teaching any critical thinking at all to students. Because critical thinking “challenges set beliefs”. In other words, critical thinking undoes the work of propaganda and the neoconservative alternate-reality tunnel that has been constructed in American media for the last 35 years.

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  • Glenn Sullivan

    The scary aspect of the results is how few of the American college students knew the answers to the “easy” questions (e.g., which brothers were the first to fly an airplane at Kitty Hawk?). I have posted a detailed summary here:

  • Elisabeth

    True, but you have to remember that a lot of people graduate from high school now who would have dropped out 50 years ago. We’re making more people put in more years, but they ain’t necessarily learning more.

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  • Jittu Banjare




No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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