Why We’re Doing Better On IQ Tests

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More on the new book by James Flynn, the political scientist who identified the “Flynn Effect”—the trend of rising IQ scores (my earlier post on Flynn is here). Megan Gambino of Smithsonian magazine interviewed Flynn. Here, I’ve pulled out some of the most interesting parts of their conversation:

• Scores have risen unevenly across different “subtests” of the IQ tests Flynn examined. Flynn says: “For example, there is a subtest called ‘similarities,’ which asks questions like, what do dogs and rabbits have in common? Or what do truth and beauty have in common? On this subtest, the gains over those 50 years have been quite extraordinary, something like 25 points. The arithmetic subtest essentially tests arithmetical reasoning, and on that, the gains have been extremely small.”

• The ultimate cause of rising IQ scores “is the Industrial Revolution,” Flynn says: “It affects our society in innumerable ways. The intermediate causes are things like smaller family size. If you have a better ratio of adults to children in the home, than an adult vocabulary predominates rather than a child vocabulary. Family size fell in the last century throughout the Western world. Formal schooling is terribly important; it helps you think in the way that IQ testers like. In 1910, schools were focused on kids memorizing things about the real world. Today, they are entirely about relationships. There is also the fact that so many more of us are pursuing cognitively demanding professions. Compared to even 1950, the number of people who are doing technical, managerial or professional jobs has risen enormously. The fact that our leisure has switched away from merely recovery from work towards cognitively taxing pleasures, like playing video games, has also been important.”

• Our brains are not actually smarter than those of our forbears, says Flynn: “I prefer to say our brains are more modern . . . One of the fundamental things [that has happened] is the switch from ‘utilitarian spectacles’ to ‘scientific spectacles.’ The fact that we wear scientific spectacles doesn’t mean that we actually know a lot about science. What I mean is, in 1900 in America, if you asked a child, what do dogs and rabbits have in common, they would say, ‘Well, you use dogs to hunt rabbits.’ This is not the answer that the IQ tests want. They want you to classify. Today, a child would be likely to say, ‘They are both animals.’ They picked up the habit of classification and use the vocabulary of science.” (Read more here.)

So interesting—I love the idea that our brains have become “more modern.” They have adapted to do better what the IQ testers reward them for doing.

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One Response to “Why We’re Doing Better On IQ Tests”

  1. [...] magazine has an interview with James Flynn about his book Are We Getting Smarter? (HT: Annie Murphy Paul) First, Flynn on the “bright tax: The wisdom always was that the brighter you were, the less [...]

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