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Are we getting more intelligent? Jim Flynn at TED2013

Posted by: Thu-Huong Ha
Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Watch James Flynn’s TED Talk: “Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’

Jim Flynn is an expert in intelligence famous for his research on the Flynn effect, the phenomenon that humanity’s IQ has been dramatically increasing since the 1930s. He opens Session 11 today on the last day of TED2013 to help answer the question, “Who are we?”

During the 21st century, our minds have altered, he begins. At the beginning of the century, people were confronted with a concrete world, and their primary interest in dealing with it was to analyze how much it would benefit them. In today’s world we confront a complex world with new habits of mind: classification and abstraction. We clothe the concrete world, trying to make it logical and consistent. We ask not just about the concrete but the hypothetical: what might be, and not just what is.

Today the line for giftedness is an IQ of 130. If you scored people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an IQ of 70. That is the line for mental retardation today. What can account for this?

Imagine a Martian came down to Earth and found a ruined civilization. Imagine it found target scores from the past century: In the 1865 the target had one bullet in the bullseye; in 1898 it had five bullets in the bullseye; in 1918 100 bullets in the bullseye. The extraterrestrial archaeologist would be baffled. The tests were supposed to measure the keenness of eyesight and whether the shooter has control over their weapon, and so on; how could human skill have advanced so quickly in such a short amount of time? But of course we know the answer: We had muskets at the time of the Civil War, repeating rifles by the Spanish-American War and machine guns by World War I. It was the equipment in the hands of the average soldier that was responsible, not better eyes or steadiness of hand.

So what mental artillery have we picked up over the last 100 years? Alexander Luria studied neuropsychology in the early half of the century, and he found that people were resistent to classification, to deducing the hypothetical. His subjects simply couldn’t think about anything abstract. Consider this exchange:

Luria: What do crows and fish have in common?
Subject: Absolutely nothing. A fish swims, and a crow flies.
Luria: Are they not both animals?
Subject: Of course not, a fish is a fish, and a crow is a bird.

The man could only think of the objects as how he might use them, not as abstract objects part of a classification system.

Luria told another subject: “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is in Germany. Are there camels in Hamburg?” The subject replied, “If it’s big enough, perhaps it has camels.” Luria prompted him again to listen to the conditions, and again he replied that perhaps Hamburg had camels. He was used to camels, and he was unable to imagine that there weren’t any in Hamburg.

How have we come to solve things that aren’t real problems? For one thing, education has changed dramatically. These days the majority of Americans get a high school degree. We’ve gone from four to eight years of formal education to twelve. Fifty-two percent of Americans get some tertiary education. In 1910 a state examination in Ohio given to 14-year-olds asked socially-valued concrete questions, like “What are the capitals of the 45 American states?” In 1990 such a state examination was about abstractions, asking instead: “Why is the largest city of the state rarely a capital?” And the student is supposed to reason that the state legislature is rural controlled and they hated Big City, and so on. Today we educate people to use abstractions and link them logically.

Another shift in the past century has been in employment. In the early 1900s, three percent of the population had cognitively demanding professions; today, it’s 35 percent. And not just professions like lawyer and doctor, sub-professions like technician and computer programmer are also cognitively demanding. Compare the banker in 1900, who really just needed a good accountant and to know who was trustworthy for paying back their mortgage. Today’s bankers, like the ones involved in the mortgage crisis, have jobs that demand much more from their cognitive faculties. It’s not just the spread of more cognitively demanding jobs but the upgrading of old professions.

Moral intelligence has escalated in the past century because we now take the universal seriously and are able to look for logical connections. In the 1950s and ’60s, people were coming home and talking to their parents about Martin Luther King, Jr. When they asked the generation before them, “How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow and you were black?” their parents responded, “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Who have you known who has ever woken up black?” They were fixed in the concrete mores they had inherited, and they were unable to take the hypothetical seriously. As Flynn says, “Without the hypothetical, it’s very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.”

Looking at the evolution of IQ tests, it’s evident that gains have been greatest in certain areas, like classification and analogies. Consider the analogies in the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test:

In 1900 people could do simple analogies: Cat is to wildcat as dog is to … ? People answered wolf.
In 1960, two squares followed by a triangle is to two circles followed by a … ? People answered semi-circle.
And in 2010, two circles followed by a semi-circle is to two 16s followed by … ? An eight. People were even able to see beyond the symbol to abstract the concept of halving.

It’s not all good news, says Flynn. Our political intelligence is not improving. Studies show that American young people read less history and literature and less material about foreign places. It’s as if they are ahistoric, living in the present. How different might life be if Americans were more aware of their history, such as the fact that we have been lied to the past 4 out of 6 wars we’ve fought in? Lusitania was not an innocent ship with explosives on it, the North Vietnamese did not attack the Seventh Fleet, and Sadaam Husein hated Al Qaeda. Flynn remarks, “You can have humane moral principals, but if you’re ignorant of history and other cultures, you can’t do politics.”

But the 21st century has undoubtedly shown there are enormous cognitive reserves in orginary people, and they’re finally being tapped into. The aristocracy once was convinced that the average person would never make it, that they wouldn’t develop their cognitive abilities. But we know today that the average human is capable of much, much more.

Jim Flynn’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »