James R. Flynn: Are we really getting smarter every year?

Clint Witchalls asked the Professor Emeritus at the University Otago about this and some of Professor Flynn's more recent research findings

James R. Flynn is Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Flynn researches intelligence and is best known for the discovery that, over the past century, IQs have been rising at a rate of about 3 points per decade (the Flynn-effect). In advance of his new book on the subject, Clint Witchalls asked him about this and some of Professor Flynn's more recent research findings:

Clint Witchalls: How has our way of thinking and of solving problems changed over the past century?

James R. Flynn: Today we take it for granted that using logic on the abstract is an ability we want to cultivate and we are interested in the hypothetical. People from 1900 were not scientifically oriented but utilitarian and they used logic, but to use it on the hypothetical or on abstractions was foreign to them. Alexander Luria [a Soviet psychologist] went to talk to headmen in villages in rural Russia and he said to them: "Where there is always snow, bears are white. At the North Pole there is always snow, what colour are the bears there?" And they said: "I've only seen brown bears." And he said: "What do my words convey?" And they said: "Such a thing as not to be settled by words but by testimony." They didn't settle questions of fact by logic, they settled them by experience.

Your research found that we have gained 30 points on IQ tests in a century. What is the reason?

The ultimate cause of why IQs are rising is the industrial revolution. The proximate cause is how our minds differ from people in 1900 when in the test room. And the intermediate causes, of course, are more cognitively demanding work roles, more cognitively demanding leisure, more formal schooling, and smaller families.

Is it all gain?

It's not all gain. This is what irritates me when people say: "Flynn has shown that we live in the greatest of all possible worlds. We're so much brighter than we were." We take the hypothetical seriously. That means we argue maturely in moral and political arguments. We use logic on abstractions, which means we're potentially more educatable about science's view of the universe. It doesn't mean we actually are. You can develop scientific spectacles and use them all the time to defend creationism. It doesn't mean we're necessarily scientifically sophisticated, it just means you can argue for nonsense in a more sophisticated way.

Are there any signs that IQ gains are beginning to tail off?

To my surprise, Scandinavian countries tailed off in IQ at the end of the 20th century. But the latest data from South Korea, from America, from Britain, from Germany… they're humming right along.

What about developing countries?

You find large gains in Turkey, you find large gains in Kenya, and you find quite substantial gains in Brazil and the island of Dominica. Some developing countries are a mess, like Sudan and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, where they have all of their own people sitting around doing make-work on oil royalties, they are not taking off.

How will developing countries catch up if developed countries are still making gains in IQ?

I think that they will improve quicker.

You found that there is a growing gap in the US between children and their parents when it comes to active vocabulary – the vocabulary used in everyday speech. What is the reason for this?

Since 1915, adults have made huge vocabulary gains and school children only modest ones. Now that's a symptom of the growing potency of teenage subculture. Rather than naturally socialising your teenage child to your speech community, they are resistant. They can understand what you say but they're reluctant to use your language and they want to retreat into their own dialect. In 1950 I could both understand my parents' language and use it. Teenage subculture is a modern phenomenon and quite bizarre. I was 16 years old in 1950 and it never occurred to any of us that we were in some blessed state that we wanted to perpetuate.

Bright people tend to lose their analytic ability in old age much faster than average people. You call this "the bright tax". Tell me a bit about it?

A good analytic brain is like a high-performance sports car and needs greater maintenance. That would be a physiological reason. Or, it could be that brilliant people, analytically, gravitate towards professions that make analytic demands. And that gives them a big exercise advantage on the average person, and then at retirement, it disappears. So it could be environmental. But we just don't know.

Does IQ have a positive correlation with happiness, fulfilment, etc?

Oh yes. Lewis Terman [the inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ test] did a study of high IQ people. They tended to have more stable marriages, to be in better professions, etc. High IQ people have the cognitive abilities that our society designates as important to get the credentials that lead to better professions. And if you don't have financial problems, your marriage is less likely to break up. If your wife respects you, she is less likely to run off with the plumber.

Many child prodigies end up as failures? Is it possible that a very high IQ is pathological?

Well, it turns out many of them had autism or Asperger's syndrome. But today we are gaining an insight into why some of them have been very bad with people skills.

Is IQ not a very divisive tool? You're dumb. You're clever.

It is. It's inherently hierarchical.

But if it's divisive, why use it?

It yields interesting insights. Look what I've learned about teenage subculture. Or look at what we've learned about how our minds have evolved.

'Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century' by James R. Flynn is published by Cambridge University Press (£16.99)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there