IQ and the Flynn Effect

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve always enjoyed taking IQ tests. Earlier this year, salaried employees in the department where I worked had to take a series of tests that were supposed to measure one’s leadership potential. Some of them dealt with experience and ambition in relation to leadership, and one test measured abstract reasoning. We were told not to worry about this last test, that it was only one piece of the larger picture. But for me, that test was the best part of the whole process.

I’ve never wanted to get into management, so I have naturally not sought out the kind of experiences the other tests were asking about. What leadership positions I’ve been in have usually come sort of by default – because I was the only one willing to do it, or because I seemed the “obvious” choice (president of math league in high school because I got the highest scores, and Bible study leader at church because I am the pastor’s wife).

The kind of abstract reasoning and pattern recognition used in a certain kind of IQ test, however, is something I’m good at and I enjoy doing it. Partly I enjoy it because I know I do it well, but it’s also the kind of puzzle I enjoy solving. I think the test I took (a long time ago) that was supposed to measure aptitude for computer programming was of this nature. I not only did very well on it, but I enjoyed taking it so much that I figured I would enjoy computer programming also.

I always assumed, growing up, that such tests measured some actual trait labeled intelligence. That’s what the people who made and administered the tests thought, of course, and I suppose most other people did also, until psychologists began to recognize that intelligence was really made up of a number of broad abilities.

I remember learning about the idea of multiple intelligences, a number of years ago, when I was looking for resources for teaching Sunday School. On the one hand, it makes sense to recognize that different people learn best in different ways, which seem to be at least somewhat related to this idea of multiple intelligences. On the other hand, it seems to be stretching the word intelligence to the point that it doesn’t mean very much, to use it for abilities that do not deal with reasoning.

No doubt society has often inappropriately treated people with high abilities at abstract reasoning as superior to those with other kinds of abilities, and it is good to recognize the value of those other kinds of abilities. But it should be possible to correct that tendency without divorcing the word intelligence from its traditional meaning related to reasoning ability.

All that was somewhat in my mind as I started reading an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. James Flynn discusses the fact that IQ scores have steadily risen over the decades, and asks Are We Really Getting Smarter? I had not realized that scores were, in fact, increasing, because the tests periodically are updated and re-standardized, so the scores appear to remain constant. Someone who scored well on a test today would have scored even better on one of the older tests. But someone who scored well several decades ago would not score nearly as well now.

Flynn was the one who initially drew attention to this trend, though it was the authors of The Bell Curve who coined the term Flynn Effect, in recognition of the work done by Flynn to document it. A number of different explanations have been offered, but Flynn’s own explanation, in the WSJ article, is that modern education has trained people do perform better at abstract reasoning activities.

If IQ tests really measured something innate, then people who lived a hundred years ago should have performed just as well. (Better nutrition and protection from infectious diseases have been offered as explanations for the increases, and they may account for part of it, but improvement in those areas does not seem to follow the same pattern of gradual, linear progression seen in IQ scores over several decades.) People in a less technological society did not have all the knowledge we do, but they should have had similar aptitude.

Language and cultural references are sometimes given as explanations for certain subgroups of society not performing as well, but the non-verbal problems that use only geometric shapes should eliminate that issue. Yet as Flynn points out, people who have not gone through modern education would have difficulty understanding what in the world such questions were about.

We are trained at such a young age to recognize abstract patterns, finding similarities in unrelated objects (similar shape or color, for instance), that it is hard (for me, anyway) to imagine lacking that kind of recognition. But it makes sense what Flynn says: if success in life is based on ability to hunt animals, or make furniture or clothing, the idea that the moon and a cantaloupe have something in common (because they are both round) may sound like nonsense.

Of course, in a technologically advanced society, abstract reasoning is an important ability in many jobs. But it’s good to be reminded that IQ is a useful measure only to the extent that what it measures is useful.


One Response to IQ and the Flynn Effect

  1. Margaret says:

    This is fascinating. It kind of makes sense that earlier generations weren’t accustomed to thinking the same way that we do. I wonder if scientists were any different: if Isaac Newton had taken one of our intelligence tests, would he have done well on it?

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