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Dr. James Flynn on the Flynn Effect

One of the well-documented aspects regarding IQ testing on which you can safely make broad generalizations, is that aggregate mean IQ scores  have been rising. Not just here in America or in advanced countries but everywhere (though at different rates), rich or poor, free or unfree, north or south. Moreover, to the extent to which we can assemble reliable and valid psychometric records, this societal increase in mean IQ, known as “The Flynn Effect” after researcher James Flynn, has been going on for about a century.

At the same time that mean IQ has increased, the results of standardized testing of k-12 students at the national level has not reflected this improvement, at least not proportionately; seniors and some parents are also prone to make the anecdotal observation that children today simply aren’t as proficient at many practical kinds of problem solving as they were many decades ago. How can these  phenomena be reconciled ?

Flynn now argues the change is due to the increasing complexity and stimulation of the modern social evironment – children are getting better at certain kinds of thinking (which impacts IQ scores) demanded by their environment but other kinds of cognitive skills are falling into disuse:

By reverse-engineering the pattern of improvement in IQ tests, you can tell how mental priorities have changed over the century. It turns out that we, far more than our recent ancestors, take seriously the ability to find abstract similarities between objects (Question: how are dogs and rabbits alike? Answer: they are both mammals). And we are better at applying logic to finding abstract patterns, as in Raven’s Progressive Matrices.

“At that point I began to get excited”, says Flynn, “because I began to feel that I was bridging the gulf between our minds and the minds of our ancestors. We weren’t more intelligent than they, but we had learnt to apply our intelligence to a new set of problems. We had detached logic from the concrete, we were willing to deal with the hypothetical, and we thought the world was a place to be classified and understood scientifically rather than to be manipulated.

….There is still the puzzle of how environmental differences can be so weak when we compare individuals born at the same time, but so strong over time. The key, which Flynn attributes to fruitful discussions with his collaborator, William Dickens, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Flynn’s home town of Washington, DC, lies in the observation that superior genes cause superior performance by co-opting superior environments.

….Everything falls into place with the observation that, for the first time in human history, some people’s superior mental abilities are making superior mental environments available to everyone. Humans are social animals. The most important part of the environment that created your mind is other people’s minds. Before the 20th century, only the privileged had easy access to ideas. Now, when one person thinks something worthwhile, we can all think it and that thought changes all of us.

….The Flynn effect is not a story of pure gains. There are signs that children are missing concrete experiences that help develop some mental abilities. Michael Shayer, a psychologist at King’s College, London, has spent most of his working life studying the foundations of mathematical ability. In 1976 he tested children on their understanding of volume and shape, an understanding thought by many to underlie all future mathematical ability. When he repeated the tests in 2003, 11-year-olds performed only as well as eight-year-olds had done 30 years earlier. “

In the words of Aristotle – ” We are what we frequently do”. Or more practically, students, on average, will get better at what they spend time doing, including cognitive behaviors.

I’m not sure this hypothesis decisively knocks a hole in the important role of heritability on IQ, given the mounds of evidence in it’s favor, but Flynn is certainly proposing a reasonable explanation for the scattershot outcomes of “the Flynn Effect”. Nor is it true that ” this is the first time in history” everyone is benefiting from superior environments created by a few. That has always been the case and there is a proper name for it – ” civilization”. What is different today is the greater magnitude of scale, accelerated velocity and connectivity of such superior environments due to globalization and the information revolution.

I’d like to hear Dan of tdaxp  weigh in here.


Herrick of Gene Expression already has with “10 Questions for James Flynn

4 Responses to “Dr. James Flynn on the Flynn Effect”

  1. Fabius Maximus Says:

    For anyone interested in this field, Gene Expression is the place to go for discussion of basic issues or current events!

  2. Dan tdaxp Says:


    Excellent thoughts!  I <a href="http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/12/04/the-hierachy-of-intelligence-s-tests.html">responded on my blog</a>.

    Good catch on his "first time in history" line.  My guess is that he wants to limit the possibility that g could have been under any selective pressure..  It’d be bad enough if it geographically differentiated on account of genetic drift, so if never before did it matter, then it’s just a spandrel that’s recently been coopted by civilization.

    Still, Flynn’s larger point is that genes express themselves in an enironment, and that is valid.

  3. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Drat!    Too used to typing straight HTML!

    Here’s my post.

    Also, gnxp has a sister-blog that is even more science-y!

  4. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Turning the Sow's Ear into a Silk Purse Says:

    […] and power, those skills are emphasized, and we see the Flynn Effect in IQ scores as described by Zenpundit: One of the well-documented aspects regarding IQ testing on which you can safely make broad […]

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