“The Flynn effect does not reflect gains in general intelligence, it reflects a shift to more abstract thinking brought about by a changing social environment. We aren’t getting smarter; we are getting more modern.”
In the mid-’80s, the political philosopher James Flynn noticed a remarkable but puzzling trend: for the past century, average IQ scores in every industrialized nation have been steadily rising. And not just a little: nearly three points every decade. Every several years, IQ tests test have to be “re-normed” so that the average remains 100. This means that a person who scored 100 a century ago would score 70 today; a person who tested as average a century ago would today be declared mentally retarded.
This bizarre finding—christened the “Flynn effect” by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray inThe Bell Curve—has since snowballed so much supporting evidence that in 2007 Malcolm Gladwell declared in The New Yorker that “the Flynn effect has moved from theory to fact.” But researchers still cannot agree on why scores are going up. Are we are simply getting better at taking tests? Are the tests themselves a poor measure of intelligence? Or do rising IQ scores really mean we are getting smarter?
In spite of his new book’s title, Flynn does not suggest a simple yes or no to this last question. It turns out that the greatest gains have taken place in subtests that measure abstract reasoning and pattern recognition, while subtests that depend more on previous knowledge show the lowest score increases. This imbalance may not reflect an increase in general intelligence, Flynn argues, but a shift in particular habits of mind. The question is not, why are we getting smarter, but the much less catchy, why are we getting better at abstract reasoning and little else?
Flynn starts from a position that accepts the idea of IQ—a measure that supposedly reflects an underlying “general” intelligence. Some researchers have objected to this concept in part because of its circular definition: psychologists measure general intelligence by analyzing correlation patterns among multiple intelligence tests; someone with greater general intelligence will perform better on all these subtests. But although he does not quibble with the premise, Flynn argues that an increase in general intelligence is not the full story when it comes to the past century’s massive score gains.
If we were really getting smarter overall, scores should be going up across all the subtests, but that is not the case. To understand the score gains, then, we need to set aside issues of general intelligence and instead analyze patterns on the IQ subtests. Doing so opens a window into cognitive trends over time and reveals a far more interesting picture of what may be happening to our minds. This inquiry is at the heart of Flynn’s thirty-year career, and it drives his thoughtful (though occasionally tedious) book.
As Flynn demonstrates, a typical IQ test question on the abstract reasoning “Similarities” subtest might ask “How are dogs and rabbits alike?” While our grandparents were more likely to say something along the lines of “Dogs are used to hunt rabbits,” today we are more likely to say the “correct” answer, “Dogs and rabbits are both mammals.” Our grandparents were more likely to see the world in concrete, utilitarian terms (dogs hunt rabbits), but today we are more likely to think in abstractions (the category of “mammal”). In contrast, the Arithmetic IQ subtest and the Vocabulary IQ subtest—tests that rely on previous knowledge—show hardly any score increase at all.
Why has this happened? The short answer, according to Flynn, is that a convergence of diverse social factors in post-industrial societies—from the emphasis of scientific reasoning in school to the complexity of modern video games—has increasingly demanded abstract thinking. We have begun to see the world, Flynn says, through “scientific spectacles.” To put it even more broadly, the pattern of rising IQ scores does not mean that we are comparing “a worse mind with a better one,” but rather that we are comparing minds that “were adapted to one cognitive environment with those whose minds are adapted to another cognitive environment.” Seen in this light, the Flynn effect does not reflect gains in general intelligence, it reflects a shift to more abstract thinking brought about by a changing social environment. We aren’t getting smarter; we are getting more modern.