Monday, June 8, 2015
The Flynn Effect
Do you believe in genetic mutation to improve the strength of the species? Random DNA changes that ultimately move the best of mutating traits to the general population over time? Natural selection? OK, OK, I’ll say it. Evolution? If you don’t, stop reading, because you won’t believe the rest of this blog. If you do, you might be interested in the theory developed in the mid-80s by philosopher Jacob Flynn as he examined IQ test results over time.
He posited that human intelligence – measured by those standardized IQ tests – increased steadily over time. Three percentage points, on average, every decade to be precise. If you believe that intelligence is the great separator of humans from other species, even from their own related kind, then this should come as no particular surprise. 30 points in a century is a huge change, if it is accurate, the difference between average and very superior.
Clearly, IQ tests are in fact rising at this alarming rate. In a recent study, which was published “in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science, Jakob Pietschnig and Martin Voracek at the University of Vienna report a new ‘meta-analysis.’ They combined data from 271 studies, done from 1909 to 2013, testing almost four million people from 31 countries on six continents. Most of the test questions remain the same over time, so the scientists could look at how much people improved from decade to decade.
“They found that the Flynn effect is real—and large. The absolute scores consistently improved for children and adults, for developed and developing countries. People scored about three points more every decade, so the average score is 30 points higher than it was 100 years ago.
“The speed of the rise in scores varied in an interesting way. The pace jumped in the 1920s and slowed down during World War II. The scores shot up again in the postwar boom and then slowed down again in the ’70s. They’re still rising, but even more slowly. Adult scores climbed more than children’s.
“Why? There are a lot of possible explanations, and Drs. Pietschnig and Voracek analyze how well different theories fit their data. Genes couldn’t change that swiftly, but better nutrition and health probably played a role. Still, that can’t explain why the change affected adults’ scores more than children’s. Economic prosperity helped, too—IQ increases correlate significantly with higher gross domestic product.” Wall Street Journal, May 27th.
You can introduce a touch of skepticism into this study by asking yourself exactly what these test scores reflect. The ability to survive and prosper in a modern technological world, with a heavy urban emphasis? What about the ability to maximize crop yields in a sole-proprietorship small farm? Exactly, but even so they reflect how humanity reacts to their immediately environmental reality. I think we call that “evolution” as well. How do these factors skew the results? And what are the other factors?
“The fact that more people go to school for longer likely played the most important role—more education also correlates with IQ increases. That could explain why adults, who have more schooling, benefited most. Still, the Flynn effect has a strong impact on young children. Education, just by itself, doesn’t seem to account for the whole effect.
“The best explanation probably depends on some combination of factors. Dr. Flynn himself argues for a ‘social multiplier’ theory. An initially small change can set off a benign circle that leads to big effects. Slightly better education, health, income or nutrition might make a child do better at school and appreciate learning more. That would motivate her to read more books and try to go to college, which would make her even smarter and more eager for education, and so on.
“‘Life history’ is another promising theory. A longer period of childhood correlates with better learning abilities across many species. But childhood is expensive: Someone has to take care of those helpless children. More resources, nutrition or health allow for a longer childhood, while more stress makes childhood shorter. Education itself really amounts to a way of extending the childhood learning period.” WSJ.
All I can say is the study reflects that in the current era of global malaise, the rate of mind-improvement has slowed. And if I read all the slogans from American politicians on both sides of the aisle clearly, myth piled on meaningless but good-sounding words, the fact that so many voters actually believe this tripe seems to confirm this slowdown. But perhaps, “it’s the economy, stupid!” Duh-oh!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I just figured this was one interesting observation you might want to know.