Since I’m in Dunedin, New Zealand, I thought I’d write on one of the University of Otago’s most neuroanthropological philosophers, Prof. James Flynn, and dive back into the maelstrom around average IQ scores in different social groups. Prof. Flynn famously pointed out to people outside the standardized testing industry that IQ tests had to be periodically recalibrated because average IQ scores in industrialized countries steadily inflated, suggesting either that people were growing smarter or something else was up with these tests.
Flynn gathered tests from Europe, North America and Asia, around thirty countries in all, and discovered that, for as far back as we had data in any case, average IQ test scores had risen about 3 points per decade and in some cases more. Only recently, in some Scandanavian countries, to the gains appear to be levelling off (see, for example, Sundet 2004; Teasdale and Owen 2005).
We’ve been down this road before at Neuroanthropology before, delving into the murky depths of group averages and tests scores. Back in December 2007, Agustín offered neuroanthropology and race- getting it straight, following up on a discussion sparked by Daniel’s post, IQ, Environment & Anthropology. I put in my two cents, and caught an ear-full, for Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1 (the first ‘part’ of this post). I’ve been wanting to re-enter this particular body of hot water since I read a story on Science Daily, Plastic Brain Outsmarts Experts: Training Can Increase Fluid Intelligence, Once Thought To Be Fixed At Birth, so against my better instincts, my shoes are off and I’m poking my toes in.
Ironically, in spite of the fact that children spend longer on average in school than in previous decades, the Flynn Effect does not show up on the parts of standardized tests that measure school-related subjects. That is, tests of vocabulary, arithmetic, or general knowledge (such as the sorts of facts one learns in school) have showed little increase, but scores have increased markedly on tests thought to measure ‘general intelligence’ (or ‘g’), such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices which require mental manipulation of objects, logical inference, or other abstract reasoning.
The Flynn Effect has been one of the most powerful refutations to those who think that intelligence is ‘innate’ or ‘genetically determined’ because it’s very hard to argue that the genetic pool of a population can improve over time; if genes determine intelligence, how can the average in a population be increasing? Theoreticians called ‘IQ fundamentalists’ by some commentators have put forward a number of arguments about innate intelligence, virtually always pessimistic about minority groups, and often seeking to decrease funding for programs like Head Start that seek to ameliorate inequalities in academic achievement (see for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of ‘IQ fundamentalists’ in his review of Flynn’s What Is Intelligence? in The New Yorker from around this time last year.
Jon S. Twing at TrueScores pointed out in a post, IQ and the Flynn Effect, that, when he was working on the Third Edition of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-III), he was fascinated with a process called ‘continuous norming.’ Twing writes that continuous norming was a process developed by Prof. Richard Gorsuch and applied by Dr. Gale Roid ‘to improve the precision of empirical norms.’ In other words, people directly involved in the design and evaluation of these tests realized that these scores had to be adjusted, but Flynn noticed these changes and drew more widespread attention as well as some fascinating theoretical conclusions from this trend.
A number of explanations have been put forward for the Flynn Effect, including improved nutrition, smaller families which provide more adult interaction for children, greater familiarity with standardized tests, better schooling, and more complicated cognitive environments. Flynn has offered his own explanations in recent publications, which we will return to in a moment because they offer us a nice entry point into the neuroanthropology of ‘intelligence’.
The Flynn Effect runs contrary to our usual pessimism about the intelligence of ‘kids these days.’ As Steven Johnson wrote in Wired, ‘Despite concerns about the dumbing-down of society – the failing schools, the garbage on TV, the decline of reading – the overall population was getting smarter.’ Asked point blank about the alleged intellectual degradation of contemporary life, Flynn has been very abrupt in pushing back against this (see, for example, Matt Nippert’s story on Flynn from the New Zealand Listener). Flynn’s less cynical about IQ testing (although he recognizes its limitations) than he is interested in the underlying cognitive changes that these scores might reflect.
Four paradoxes of the Flynn Effect
In his book, What Is Intelligence?, Flynn identifies four paradoxes that arise from the steady increase in average IQ test scores given the predominant understanding of ‘intelligence.’
The factor analysis paradox: Prior research suggested that a single factor, ‘general intelligence’ or ‘g,’ underlies IQ. The Flynn Effect, however, does not affect all sections of the WISC and other intelligence tests to the same degree; that is, if we’re getting smarter, some parts of our intelligence are getting smarter faster, undermining our confidence in ‘g.’
The intelligence paradox: The Flynn Effect suggests that we are getting smarter relatively quickly, but it’s not obvious (and some would say flies in the face of certain evidence) that kids today are so much smarter than their parents or grandparents (except perhaps when it comes to home electronics). As Flynn writes:
If huge IQ gains are intelligence gains, why are we not stuck by the extraordinary subtlety of our children’s conversation? Why do we not have to make allowances for the limitations of our parents? A difference of some 18 points in the average IQ over two generations ought to be highly visible.
The mental retardation paradox: If the rate of change in IQ is extrapolated backwards, it suggests that people in 1900 had a mean IQ score somewhere between 50 and 70 judged by today’s standards. An IQ level of 75 is typically considered ‘mentally retarded.’ Flynn puts this one nicely, too: ‘Either today’s children are so bright that they should run circles around us, or their grandparents were so dull that it is surprising that they could keep a modern society ticking over.’
The identical twins paradox: Twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQ scores, typically considered strong evidence for a genetic basis for differences in IQ. The Flynn Effect instead suggests that intelligence, if it is being measured by IQ, is more malleable and subject to environmental effects.
Unraveling the paradoxes
According to Flynn, one possible set of explanations (certainly not the only one) is the following:
Functional independence of intelligences: The appearance of a general intelligence, ‘g,’ underlying all the subsections and different cognitive skills on a test like the WISC, is an effect of the test in a static social context. Over time, because shifts occur in the emphasis placed on different aspects of intelligence, different cognitive skills, the relative strengths of the various dimensions can shift. In his talk at the University of Cambridge, Flynn uses the example of an ‘athletic g’ for all the events of the decathlon to discuss how traits that are functionally interdependent might appear to correlate (see also Dickens and Flynn 2001).
Non-uniform intelligence gains: As Flynn writes: ‘The 20th century has seen some cognitive skills make great gains, while others have been in the doldrums.’ Whether or not our scores are increasing, and how much, depends very much upon which cognitive skill we’re testing. He offers a very interesting discussion of the variation in rates of improvement (or even decrease) here. As Flynn explains:
IQ gains over time describe a dynamic situation in which social priorities shift in a multitude of ways. No better maths teaching, more leisure but with the extra leisure devoted to visual rather then verbal pursuits, the spread of the scientific ethos, and a host of other things all occurring together. The average on Similarities rises but the average on Arithmetic and Vocabulary does not.
Increasing skills in abstract thought: Flynn points out the obvious – our ancestors were not mentally retarded. But they also were adept at different sorts of mental skills, an issue I’ll return to a bit later. Flynn suggests that we have become more adept at certain kinds of formal, hypothetical, and logical reasoning, liberating our problem solving ability from concrete reference (something that can be a detriment in certain sorts of problem-solving, as well).
Twins actually generating shared environment: Part of the reason genetic factors appear dominant in some traits is that some of these genetic traits attract certain environmental factors that compound and reinforce the genetic differences. The example given in the Wired article on the Flynn effect is the way that a genetically-based advantage in height might lead two identical twins, separated at birth, to wind up in environments where they both get pretty good at basketball; see the discussion here, too or in Dickens and Flynn 2001). As Flynn writes: ‘genetic advantages that may have been quite modest at birth have a huge effect on eventual basketball skills by getting matched with better environments — and genes thereby get credit for the potency of powerful environmental factors, such as more practice, team play, professional coaching.’
Flynn, together with William T. Dickens (2001), provided a more rigorous mathematical model of the ways in which reciprocal causation and social multipliers could confound the contribution of genetics and environment to IQ, but also found that many factors that influenced childhood IQ scores might not affect adult IQ without change in adult environment to reinforce changes. Because a person’s genotype affects their environment, a potentially small difference in the genetic contribution to intelligence might, through feedback effects, get compounded into a large difference in performance on a standardized test. In addition, there would be social effects if those around you would be developing more sophisticated cognitive abilities; you would both be influenced by them and expected to live up to the new norm in ability.
So do we give up on IQ tests?
Flynn doesn’t think gains in IQ scores are either trivial or cause for discounting standardized testing; the tests are not fatally flawed, although our understanding of the results may be. Flynn argues that we really need to understand what these changes are measuring. People are not growing ‘smarter,’ they are growing better at very specific cognitive skills:
This solution to our paradox does not imply that massive IQ gains over time are trivial. Aside from the escalation in lateral thinking, they represent nothing less than a liberation of the human mind. The scientific world-view, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial people. This has paved the way for mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable. (from this page in the Cambridge talk)
Flynn surveys a number of studies that suggest that the ability to engage in formal or abstract reasoning strongly correlates, not with intelligence, but with the level of schooling; since, in the West, people stay in school longer if they are more intelligent, it makes sense that the correlation between intelligence and the ability to engage in abstract reasoning would be especially strong in industrialized countries. That is, if schooling affects intellectual abilities measured by these tests, at the same time that these tests provide greater access to formal educational opportunities, then the tests would measure intelligence really well, but not just because they transparently reflect some underlying intelligence. Rather, it would be because the tests themselves are tied up in a self-reinforcing cycle of talent (or its lack) being compounded by opportunities, confidence, and motivation (or their opposite).
Innovations in thinking
Flynn argues that certain shorthand abstractions (SHA), formulae for thinking critically, have entered the cognitive repertoire of educated people, expanding their intellectual capabilities. Ironically, none of these SHAs shows up on a standardized IQ test like WISC or WAIS. If we wanted to measure people’s critical thinking abilities, we would have to come up with a new sort of test.
In a brief form, the concepts (along with the date of their creation and intellectual discipline) include: ‘market’ (1776, economics), ‘percentage’ (1860, statistics), ‘natural selection (1864, biology), ‘control group’ (1875, social science), ‘random sample’ (1877, social science), ‘naturalistic fallacy’ (1903, moral philosophy), ‘charisma effect’ (1922, social science), ‘placebo’ (1938, medicine), ‘falsifiable/tautology’ (1959, philosophy of science), and ‘tolerance school fallacy’ (2000, moral philosophy) (okay… the last one is Flynn’s, but it really builds upon some concepts close to our anthropological hearts, like cultural relativism). I won’t go into any detail (you can read about them here), but the idea is that some concepts that become shared representations – although by no means universal – facilitate forms of thought that are otherwise unlikely, or even impossible.
Flynn also offers a short, incomplete list of some of the concepts that resemble shorthand abstractions, but are actually opposed to scientific thought; among the examples he offers are the idea that some human traits are ‘contrary to nature’ (usually something the speaker want so condemn), ‘intelligent design’, ‘gender science’, and ‘reality is a text’, a nice mix of targets guaranteed to irritate a majority of readers: as Flynn writes, they are ‘evenly divided between the contributions of obscurantist churches and contemporary academics.’
Whether or not we agree about any one of these SHAs (or anti-SHAs, call them ‘shorthand errors’ or SHEs), Flynn’s account is a powerful discussion of how cognition might be affected by social invention, cognitive sharing, and even historical development of thought. Rather than getting ‘smarter’ in some vague way, Flynn offers a much more concrete account of specific thinking tools that individuals may or may not successfully integrate into their repertoire. They clearly have blinders as well as lenses, obscuring certain things or making it harder to have some kinds of thought, as well as facilitating others (like the ways of thinking tested on the WISC and other IQ tests). Although I may quibble with this or that SHA, I admire the degree to which he pins them down, even locating their origin and birth. It’s a kind of intellectual history that’s a bit alien to me as an anthropologist, but I think it’s very persuasive.
I’ll come back later and argue about whether ‘modern’ is such a good term to call it, but given this sophisticated, historical, contingent account of the very specific concepts that the term refers to in Flynn’s theory, I think it works. Perhaps it’s not fortuitous as sloppy thinkers are not going to read the details but possibly assume a very old fashioned ‘the West and the Rest’ division of the world into ‘modern thinkers’ and ‘non-modern thinkers,’ but I can’t accuse Flynn of doing that.
Flynn wrapped up his talk at the University of Cambridge with a discussion of wisdom, whether or not the industrial revolution that produced gains in IQ makes us so materialistic that wisdom will not be able to curb destructive desires. He wonders openly about the future:
The 20th century has been the century of rising IQ, the spread of the language and categories of science, the liberation of reason from the concrete, and the enhancement of on-the-spot problem solving. The 21st century will be the battleground of armies for and against the SHAs. It just might culminate in the triumph of critical thinking if universities hold fast to what they are supposed to be all about. Whether we can hope for anything more, I cannot predict.
Now, I still haven’t gotten to that article on Science Daily on the training of fluid intelligence that started me down this path, but don’t worry, I’m just getting warmed up. I’ve got more to come on training intelligence and whether or not rural people are dumber than city-dwellers… Yeah, it’s just getting good.
Thanks to Sue Sheridan who hipped me to the Science Daily piece that made me make my first notes for this posting — and our readers should check out her blog, Life of Wiley, home of the Daily Skeleton Action figure.
Dickens, William T., and James R. Flynn. 2001. Heritability Estimates Versus Large Environmental Effects: The IQ Paradox Resolved. Psychological Review 108(2): 346-369. doi:10.1037//0033-295X. 108.2.346
Flynn, James R. 1984. The mean IQ of Americans: Massive gains 1932 to 1978. Psychological Bulletin 95: 29-51.
_____. 1987. Massive IQ gains in 14 nations: What IQ tests really measure. Psychological Bulletin 101: 171-191.
_____. 1998. IQ gains over time: Toward finding the causes. In U. Neisser, ed., The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and related measures. Pp. 25 – 66. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
_____. 2000. IQ gains, WISC subtests, and fluid g: g theory and the relevance of Spearman’s hypothesis to race (with Discussion). In G. R. Bock, J. A. Goode, & K. Webb, eds., The nature of intelligence. Pp. 222-223. Novartis Foundation Symposium 233. New York: Wiley.
_____. 2007. What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gladwell, Malcolm. 2007. None of the Above: What IQ Doesn’t Tell You About Race. The New Yorker (December 17, 2007).
National Science Foundation. 2008. (June 6). Plastic Brain Outsmarts Exp
erts: Training Can Increase Fluid Intelligence, Once Thought To Be Fixed At Birth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 7, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/06/080605163804.htm
Sundet, Jon Martin. 2004. The end of the Flynn Effect. A study of secular trends in mean intelligence scores of Norwegian conscripts during half a century. Intelligence 32: 349. doi:10.1016/j.intell.2004.06.004.
Teasdale, T. W., and D. R. Owen. 2005. A long-term rise and recent decline in intelligence test performance: The Flynn Effect in reverse. Personality and Individual Differences 39(4): 837–843. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.01.029
University of Michigan. 2008. (May 6). Brain-training To Improve Memory Boosts Fluid Intelligence. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 7, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/05/080505075642.htm