Why IQs Rise
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 in The 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.