Are we still getting smarter? Maybe not

Average I.Q. test scores rose decade by decade in most countries throughout the 20th century.   But now, in a few countries, the trend may be going into reverse.

By the standards of today, the average person in the late 19th century would be been on the verge of mental retardation.  By the standards of that era, the average person of today is on the verge of being highly gifted.

This is called the “Flynn effect,” for James R. Flynn, who discovered it.    He doesn’t believe that people today are biologically superior to people of an earlier era, even though they are better nourished and get better medical care.

He believes it is because people today are educated to reason abstractly and hypothetically, which is what I.Q. tests measure.   People in the earlier era weren’t stupid; they just focused on particular things and personal experience.

Higher I.Q., in other words, fits you to function in a civilization based on abstract reasoning.

Now there is some evidence of a “reverse Flynn effect”—I.Q. leveling off or declining in some countries.   This is based on tests of large numbers of British school children age 11-12 and 13-14 in selected years, of military conscripts in Denmark, Norway and Finland, of students in Estonia, of adults in France and the Netherlands.

It is hard for me to think of any reason why this would be so in those countries that would not apply in greater measure to the United States.

Then again, an increase in the ability to generalize and reason abstractly is not necessarily a good thing if it comes at the cost of the ability to notice the particular and the concrete.


Are Smart People Getting Smarter? by Jonah Lehrer for Wired.  [Added 10/5/2017]

An analysis of the Flynn effect by Pumpkin Person.

The negative Flynn effect: a systematic literature review by Edward Dutton, Dimitri van der Linden and Richard Lynn for Intelligence, an academic journal.

British teenagers have lower IQs that their counterparts did 30 years ago by Richard Gray for The Telegraph.

Against individual IQ worries by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codes.   Test scores aren’t everything.

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One Response to “Are we still getting smarter? Maybe not”

  1. Edward Says:

    The I.Q. of our politicians is falling.


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