Do rising IQ scores mean people are getting smarter?
Listening to Lucas Chan talk about the planet leaves no doubt that young people are a lot smarter than many people give them credit for. A high-school student, Chan was one of the organizers of the Earth Day rally held on April 22 in East Vancouver.
“We’re here to show that youth are both aware and concerned about the direction the planet is moving,” Chan told the Georgia Straight at the event.
And based on the established pattern of rising IQ scores across generations, Chan and his friends will score higher than their predecessors if they take the same intelligence tests that were administered in previous decades.
So are people getting smarter?
It depends on what you mean, according to James Flynn.
He’s the New Zealand academic whose name has been linked to the steady increase in average IQ-test scores around the world during the 20th century. It’s called the Flynn effect.
“It’s more important to clarify how the new generation differs from their ancestors,” Flynn told the Straight in a phone interview. On the line from the city of Dunedin, where he’s a professor emeritus at the University of Otago. Flynn explained why IQ scores aren’t the whole story about the evolution of human intelligence.
“If you said to someone in 1900, ‘What do dogs and rabbits have in common?’, the person in 1900 would have said, ‘You use dogs to hunt rabbit,’ ” he said. “The right answer on an IQ test is that they’re both mammals.”
That only shows that people today use their brains differently than those in 1900 or 1950.
“We use them more to classify and to deal with abstractions in terms of logic,” Flynn said. “That means that we can deal with a wider range of problems. We would be better at lateral thinking. We would be better at doing the executive tasks of a job if you’re a manager. We would be more suited for university education. If you mean, were our ancestors mentally retarded? No. They could deal with the real world around them. They were very good at manipulating the real world.”
According to a paper on the Flynn effect, IQ-test scores have been rising about 0.3 points a year, or three points a decade. This amounts to a staggering 15 points over 50 years, Cameron Clark writes in “The Flynn Effect: Exogenous Causes and Astounding Corollaries”. An SFU graduate, Clark is now studying for a master’s in clinical psychology at the University of Alberta.
He states that it’s easy to suppose the increases in IQ-test scores represent a rise in intelligence. But that leads to problems if one follows its “consequences backward through time”.
“If a cognitively average person of today were able to travel back in time, the performance required to attain their score of 100 on an IQ test of today would garner them a score of 118 by 1950 standards, and a whopping 130 by 1910 standards, superior to fully 98% of his or her peers,” Clark writes. “However, this also implies the shocking logical converse: If a person of average cognitive ability in 1910 were able to take an IQ test today, the performance required to earn them a score of 100 in 1910 would yield them only 70 points today, two standard deviations below today’s mean—right at the cutoff for mental retardation.”
Jonathan Plucker, a professor of educational psychology and cognitive science at the Indiana University School of Education, was amused when told younger generations always regard themselves as smarter than their forebears.
According to Plucker, who is also the director of his university’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, he has an 11-year-old daughter, and she’s pretty sure she’s smarter than her father.
“Younger people do tend to be better with newer forms of technology,” Plucker told the Straight in a phone interview. “And newer forms of technology tend to make us more efficient and better problem solvers, especially now with all the web-based and social-media technologies. It’s so much easier to get information. For creativity, problem-solving, information is the basic building block. It doesn’t mean you’re a better problem solver than your parents or grandparents were. But you may have much better information to help solve problems. That’s another way that we can see that difference.”
Plucker also plays a key role in a university website devoted to the topic of human intelligence. A section on the Flynn effect states that research findings show the largest gains in IQ scores have been on tests that measure so-called fluid intelligence.
“These tests try to emphasize problem-solving and minimize a reliance on specific skills or familiarity with words and symbols,” the site states. “These tests on average have shown an increase of about 15 points or one standard deviation per generation.”
However, IQ-score increases were moderate on tests that measure “crystallized intelligence” like vocabulary and math skills.
Although IQ scores aren’t the entire measure of human intelligence, Flynn has also demonstrated that these can serve as a window on class and race conditions.
A member of the U.S. Socialist Party and the black protest movement before he moved to New Zealand in 1963, Flynn authored the 2008 book Where Have All the Liberals Gone? Race, Class, and Ideals in America. In it, he said, he compared the IQ levels of illegitimate children left behind by white and black soldiers in Germany after World War II.
“Those left behind by black servicemen had no lower IQs than those left behind by white servicemen,” Flynn said. “And of course in Germany, those black children were just dark-coloured Germans.”
The experience of white and black children in the U.S. is different. At the age of about one year, they have the same IQs. Even at the age of four, blacks are fewer than five points behind.
“But then it steadily goes down up to the age of 24, which is where our data runs out,” Flynn said. “And I think this is because of the distinctive black experience in America. Sixty-three percent of black children are raised in solo-mother homes without much verbal stimulation. They go to worse schools than whites go to. They have a teenage subculture which is anti-cognitive. After high school, more black males experience prison than university. So there is a life history that explains why blacks lose ground.”
Flynn’s new book, Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ and the Twenty-First Century, will be published this August.