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Why are we getting smarter? Further reading on the “Flynn effect”

Posted by: Jessica Gross
James Flynn points out a fascinating dynamic at TED2013, that we appear to be getting smarter. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

James Flynn points out a fascinating dynamic at TED2013, that we appear to be getting smarter. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In the 1980s, psychologist James Flynn discovered that, over the past century, our average IQ has increased dramatically. The difference, in fact, is so stark that the phenomenon garnered its own name: the Flynn effect.

In today’s talk, Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’, given at TED2013, Flynn explains that if you scored people a century ago against today’s norms, they’d have an IQ of 70, while if you score us against their norms, we’d have an average IQ of 130. In the years since his original discovery, Flynn has investigated just what this evolution is all about. Hint: our ancestors weren’t on the verge of mental retardation, nor are we all intellectually gifted.

James Flynn: Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents'James Flynn: Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents'Flynn argues that the effect comes down to three types of thinking we currently practice that we didn’t a century ago: “classification, using logic on abstractions, taking the hypothetical seriously,” as he puts it. In other words, kids are tested in school on their ability not just to recite facts, but to apply logic to abstract scenarios. These types of thinking are also demanded by our jobs, as cognitively demanding professions have risen in popularity and importance. “Some of the habits of mind that we have developed over the twentieth century have paid off in unexpected areas,” he says.

Flynn delves into this dramatic change in his book, Are We Getting Smarter?, which you should definitely pick up if you’re interested in this subject. Below, some more fascinating reading on Flynn’s work.

  1. In an interview last December with Smithsonian.com, Flynn presented some surprising nuggets he’d come across in his research. He noted that the gap between adults’ vocabularies and their children’s is increasing. Meanwhile, he also pointed out that the word “teenager” didn’t exist in 1950. Finally, a rather depressing thought: “The brighter you are, the quicker after the age of 65 you have a downward curve for your analytic abilities. For a bright person, you go downhill faster than an average person.”
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  2. Flynn also spoke with Scientific American about his latest book and findings, and he beautifully explained the evolution of our mindset: “We have no idea of the gulf that separates our mind from people 100 years ago in America. We’ve put on scientific spectacles and they had on utilitarian spectacles. They were splitters. If you’re making use of the environment for advantage, you distinguish things. This animal leaves this track. This dog is good for hunting and that one isn’t. We’re lumpers; we’re used to thinking that you classify the world as a prerequisite to understanding it, and we’re highly willing to use logic on the abstract.”
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  3. In Flynn’s original 1984 article, “The Mean IQ of Americans: Massive Gains 1932 to 1978,” he argued that, “The period in question shows the radical malleability of IQ during a time of normal environmental change; other times and other trends cannot erase that fact.”
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  4. A 2005 piece in Wired told the story of Flynn’s discovery, which flowered from a combination of happenstance, a keen eye and dogged data collection.
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  5. The Flynn effect got the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in a 2007 New Yorker piece following the publication of Flynn’s What Is Intelligence? “An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are,” Gladwell wrote. “This is a critical distinction.”
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  6. And the Flynn effect got the James Flynn treatment in a September 2012 Wall Street Journal essay. Here, Flynn gave a series of sample test questions to demonstrate our minds’ evolution:

    • 1. [gun] / [gun] / [bullet]. 2. [bow] / [bow] / [blank]. Pictures that represent concrete objects convey the relationship. In 1910, the average person could choose “arrow” as the answer.
    • 1. [square] / [square] / [triangle]. 2. [circle] / [circle] / [blank]. In this question, the relationship is conveyed by shapes, not concrete objects. By 1960, many could choose semicircle as the answer: Just as the square is halved into a triangle, so the circle should be halved.
    • 1. * / & / ?. 2. M / B / [blank]. In this question, the relationship is simply that the symbols have nothing in common except that they are the same kind of symbol. That “relationship” transcends the literal appearance of the symbols themselves. By 2010, many could choose “any letter other than M or B” from the list as the answer.
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  7. In a largely positive Guardian review of Flynn’s most recent book, the writer ended by lamenting Flynn’s discovery of the “Bright Tax” (see #1, above): “In fact, this reviewer is so depressed by Professor Flynn’s musing about ageing that he has resolved to devote all his remaining analytical capabilities to designing a rocket-powered stair-lift. The aim: to get to the top before he has forgotten what he was coming upstairs for.”

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