Flynn’s Are We Getting Smarter?


Jason Collins


February 26, 2013

James Flynn of Flynn effect fame has a relatively new book out, Are We Getting Smarter? I have found Flynn’s earlier books to be easy but not great reads, and this book followed that pattern. However, reading them is worthwhile as they tend to provide a comprehensive update on the latest in IQ testing from around the globe. Flynn is also not afraid to throw in some interesting arguments.

The question in the title of the book has two elements. First, does the Flynn effect mean that we are getting smarter? Flynn prefers to say that we are not necessarily smarter, but that we are more modern. We are born with the same mental hardware, but in a more complex world humans are becoming more “scientific” in their thinking. We are better able to characterise and abstract.

The second is whether this trend is continuing, and generally it is. Except for the Scandinavian countries, IQ is still going up in the United States, England, Germany and other developed countries. IQ is also increasing at a slightly faster rate in developing countries, but not fast enough to close the gap with developed countries in the near future. There are also some notable exceptions, such as Sudan.

One of the more interesting chapters is Flynn’s discussion of IQ testing of death row inmates. If an inmate has a tested IQ of 65 or below, they are spared execution. But consider two inmates of the same intelligence who were both tested for intelligence in 1975, but one was tested using a 1972 normed test, while the other completed a test normed in 1947-48 (tests need to be normed regularly because of the Flynn effect). Given the different dates on which the tests were normed, the former can have their IQ measured at 65 and be spared, while the latter would be measured at 73 and face the death penalty. The view of courts on this point appears mixed. More broadly, however, it hints at an important discipline in considering IQ test results. If you are confronted with an IQ test result, you should ask when was the test normed and when was the test taken. It is only in that context that the result can be meaningful.

Flynn spends some time revisiting old debates with Arthur Jensen about whether the Flynn effect is measuring anything meaningful. In particular, Flynn accuses Jensen of psychometric obsessions by only caring about whether the Flynn effect is relevant to g, and not about whether there are any real world implications.

The relative cognitive complexity of the tasks (or their relative g-loadings) is beside the point. If you do not care about anything but finding an absolute measure of our ability to deal with cognitive complexity, an absolute measure of intelligence if you will, you will not be interested. Since you cannot correlate IQ gains with g, you dismiss them as “hollow” (Jensen, 1998). But that is only because you have been blinded to social significance by psychometric obsessions.

Despite their disagreements, however, Flynn credits Jensen with triggering his interest in the area, and dedicates the book to him. Flynn writes:

Psychologists should thank Jensen for pursuing his life-long mission, against great odds, to clarify the concept of g. In addition to intellectual eminence, he had the courage to face down opposition often political rather than scientific. If I have made a significant contribution to the literature, virtually every endeavor was in response to a problem set by Arthur Jensen.

The book also contains come interesting ideas about of the growing gap in language between parents and children (the problem teenage years) and the rise of single motherhood among black women in the absence of eligible men. Flynn also explores what he calls the bright tax and bright bonus - the relatively steeper decline in analytical ability but slower decline in verbal ability as those of high intelligence age (which I have posted about before).