The Flynn Effect: is Our IQ Getting Higher?

In our society, the IQ is often seen as a measure of creativity and efficiency, and many doors open before people with a higher IQ. The tests often have to be revised, though, because it turns out that we are getting smarter… or are we?

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What IQ tests measure

Modern IQ tests are based on the work of Alfred Binet from a hundred years ago and measure our cognitive and analytical abilities in three areas – verbal, numeral, and visual. As any who has ever taken an IQ test knows, they do not test acquired knowledge – only your ability to process information, think critically, find similarities, and so on. Your result on a test does not say how many intelligence points you have; it reveals your place on the general population scale. For instance, if you score a 100, it means that 50% of the people do better than you at the test, while 50% do worse – you are right in the middle; and if you score 130, it means that you “smarter” than 97% of people (if you want to learn more about IQ scoring, check this resource). There is a very strong correlation between test results and people’s academic and career success, though the scientists still cannot quite explain why – or even define intelligence, for that matter.

The Flynn effect

In the 1980s, political scientist James Flynn made an amazing discovery: our average IQ is growing by circa 3 points a year – or 10 points each generation! If a person considered smart today scores 120, a person considered smart in 1900 would score only 80 on the same test. Does it mean that we have become smarter? Not necessarily.

According to Flynn, we have simply become better at solving those tasks that the IQ tests measure. We are now more adapted to thinking analytically, scientifically, critically, because that is what modern life requires (read more on this effect here). Our whole way of thinking has changed.

Why is our IQ growing?

There are several factors that contribute to Flynn’s effect:

  1. Changes in schooling – many more people go to college or university now than before, and the system of education itself has changed: instead of memorizing facts, schools of today teach kids and teenagers to analyze, create, solve tasks, etc.
  2. Changes in family – as the number of children per family declines, kids spend much more time with adults, listening to adult conversations; they learn the adult vocabulary and methods of reasoning earlier;
  3. Work requirements – the proportion of people involved in farming or heavy industrial work is declining fast, and more and more jobs require solving highly intellectual issues; people who are involved in work that is based on analyzing and resolving problems in a systematic, “scientific” way are, in a way, “trained” for taking IQ tests;

The issue with being smart

As you see, we are not necessarily getting smarter in a universal sense; we are getting better at certain tasks that are considered a sign of intelligence. There is a caveat, however: according to Flynn, bright people face a higher risk of intellectual decline in their old age (read more on the topic here). While those with a higher IQ preserve more of their verbal abilities, they lose a lot of their analytical power.

How can one avoid this decline? Flynn recommends that you treat your brain as a muscle: it has to be exercised, especially after retirement. Make sure to read books on history and science, watch documentaries, engage in analytical tasks – this is the only way to preserve a clear, sharp mind in your old age.

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