An Introduction to the Flynn Effect

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Saptak Ganguly/Stocksy United  

You’ve probably heard someone lament the state of “kids today”: that current generations aren’t as smart as the ones that came before them. However, psychologists who study intelligence have found that there isn’t much support for this idea; instead, the opposite may actually be true. Researchers studying the Flynn effect have found that scores on IQ tests have actually improved over time. Below, we’ll review what the Flynn effect is, some possible explanations for it, and what it tells us about human intelligence.

What Is the Flynn effect?

The Flynn effect, first described in the 1980s by researcher James Flynn, refers to the finding that scores on IQ tests have increased in the past century. Researchers studying this effect have found wide support for this phenomenon. One research paper, published by psychologist Lisa Trahan and her colleagues, combined the results of other published studies (which included a total of over 14,000 participants) and found that IQ scores have indeed increased since the 1950s. Although researchers have documented some exceptions, IQ scores have generally increased over time. Trahan and her colleagues observed, “The existence of the Flynn effect is rarely disputed.”

Why Does the Flynn Effect Happen?

Researchers have put forward several theories to explain the Flynn effect. One explanation has to do with improvements in health and nutrition. For example, the past century has seen a decrease in smoking and alcohol use in pregnancy, discontinuation of the use of harmful lead paint, improvements in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, and improvements in nutrition.

As Scott Barry Kaufman writes for Psychology Today, “The Flynn effect serves as a reminder that when we give people more opportunities to prosper, more people do prosper.”

In other words, the Flynn effect could be partially due to the fact that, over the twentieth century, we’ve started addressing many of the public health issues that prevented people in earlier generations from reaching their full potential.

Another explanation for the Flynn effect has to do with societal changes that have occurred in the past century as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In a TED talk, Flynn explains that the world today is “a world where we've had to develop new mental habits, new habits of mind.” Flynn has found that IQ scores have increased the most rapidly on questions that ask us to find similarities between different things, and more abstract types of problem solving — both of which are things that we need to do more of in the modern world.

Several ideas have been put forward to explain why modern society might lead to higher scores on IQ tests. For example, today, many more of us have demanding, intellectually rigorous jobs. Schools have also changed: whereas a test at school in the early 1900s might have been more focused on memorization, a recent test might be more likely to focus on explaining the reasons for something. Additionally, more people today are likely to finish high school and go on to college. Family sizes tend to be smaller, and it has been suggested that this may allow children to pick up on new vocabulary words while interacting with their parents. It’s even been suggested that the entertainment we consume is more complex today.

Trying to understand and anticipate plot points in a favorite book or TV drama may actually be making us smarter.

What Can We Learn From Studying the Flynn Effect?

The Flynn effect tells us that the human mind is much more adaptable and malleable than we might have thought. It seems that some of our thinking patterns aren’t necessarily innate, but rather things that we learn from our environment. When exposed to modern industrial society, we think about the world in different ways than our ancestors did.

When discussing the Flynn effect in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “If whatever the thing is that I.Q. tests measure can jump so much in a generation, it can’t be all that immutable and it doesn’t look all that innate.” In other words, the Flynn effect tells us that IQ may not actually be what we think it is: instead of being a measure of natural, unlearned intelligence, it’s something that can be shaped by the education we receive and the society we live in.