Every ten years, the average IQ goes up by about 3 points. Psychologist James Flynn has spent decades documenting this odd fact, which was eventually dubbed the Flynn Effect. The question is, does the Flynn Effect mean we're getting smarter? Not according to Flynn, who argues that the effect simply reveals that IQ measures teachable skills rather than innate ones. As education changed over time, kids got better at standardized tests like the IQ test. And so their scores went up.
But some thinkers cling to the idea that IQ measures an inborn intelligence that transcends culture and schooling. If that's true, one would expect that the most abstract, "culture free" elements of IQ testing wouldn't be subject to the Flynn Effect. But they are. And now two psychology researchers have shown why that is.
What Changed Our Minds?
I talked to Florida State psychology researcher Ainsley Mitchum, who has just published a study in Journal of Experimental Psychology with his colleague Mark Fox. They looked at changes in how people scored the Raven's Matrices parts of IQ tests, which measure people's ability to think abstractly. Often these tests involve charts and pattern recognition, and are widely believed to be free of all cultural biases.
Mitchum and Fox were lucky enough to find a report detailing the scores of a group of young people who took the Raven's Progressive Matrices test in the 1960s, and compared it to scores of young people taking the test now. The results were consistent with the Flynn Effect. "People who got average scores 50 years ago would be below average now," Mitchum said. But how could this be?
In modern cultures, more emphasis is being placed on abstraction. Students learn algebra at an earlier age than they used to, for instance, but in addition our everyday lives are full of abstractions. Mitchum noted that simply using "folders" on your computer desktop requires a level of abstract thinking that people would rarely encounter in daily life fifty years ago. "This pattern makes you more comfortable breaking away from the surface level features of objects," Mitchum explained. So a more high-tech culture, combined with differences in education, enhance people's ability to engage in abstract reasoning.
Test your abstract thinking with a test very similar to Raven's Progressive Matrices.
Abstraction Is Cultural
Over time, our ability to deal with abstract information is changing. What this means is that abstraction itself is cultural, and it changes over time just as many other aspects of our culture do. It's very likely that previous generations were more literal-minded in their thinking. They dealt more often with objects in the real world, and had no need to understand things like avatars — icons that represent a real-world object — or how to translate a tiny flick of the wrist into movement on a screen.
Psychologists want to tell you that intelligence measures an essential ability that's native to people – a real quantity, not something that's cultural. So they constructed these tests that were designed to not be sensitive to culture [like the Raven's Progressive Matrices]. But intelligence can't be looked at as something separate from culture. We argue that the changes in test scores don't translate into changes in ability. It doesn't mean we're evolving into more intelligent people. The data suggest that what's changing is knowledge. There's a type of abstract knowledge that people have now in greater numbers. People on average didn't have that 50 years ago.
Mitchum noted that you can see this transformation far beyond the boundaries of technology. Even the meta-humor you see on television, such as the referential humor on Community, is far more abstract than what people enjoyed in The Three Stooges half a century ago.
If there's a substantial change in technology in the future, Mitchum believes we'll see another shift in the way people learn and deal with information "It shouldn't be surprising to people that when our environment changes rapidly, the way that people deal with information changes with it," Mitchum said. "We map onto our environment. So what we're seeing on IQ tests is the footprint of that."
You Are Probably Not Much Smarter or Dumber Than Anybody Else
If your IQ is largely the result of your environment, what does that say about intelligence itself? Aren't some of us born with more mental gifts than others? Probably not, said Mitchum. "Neurotypical adults probably don't differ as much as it seems," he said. Certainly some people have cognitive deficiencies from head injuries, neurochemical syndromes, and developmental disabilities. But people whose brains are in the typical range probably don't differ very much in terms of innate mental abilities. What we measure as "intelligence" on IQ tests is mostly environment and experience.
That doesn't mean IQ tests are useless. In fact, they are very helpful for tracking the way our cultures are shifting over time. These tests are helping us track the way modes of thought are passed on from one generation to the next, mutating as they go.
You can read a PDF of Mitchum and Fox's paper on IQ scores here.
James Flynn, Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Photo by Dmitriy Shironosov via Shutterstock.