An Empirical Curiosity The Flynn Effect

We know that the environment has powerful effects on cognitive abilities. Perhaps the simplest and most potent demonstration of this effect is the Flynn effect, named after its discoverer, James Flynn. The basic phenomenon is that IQ has increased over successive generations throughout the world during most of the past century—at least since 1930. The effect must be environmental because, obviously, a successive stream of genetic mutations could not have taken hold and exerted such an effect over such a short period of time. The effect is powerful—about 15 points of IQ per generation for tests of fluid intelligence. Also, it occurs throughout the world. The effect has been greater for tests of fluid intelligence than for tests of crystallized intelligence. The difference, if linearly extrapolated (a hazardous procedure, obviously), suggests that a person who in 1892 was at the 90th percentile on the Raven Progressive Matrices, a test of fluid intelligence, would in 1992 score at the 5th percentile.

There have been many potential explanations of the Flynn effect, and in 1996 a conference was organized by Ulric Neisser and held at Emory University to try to explain the effect. Some of the possible explanations include increased schooling, greater educational attainment of parents, better nutrition, and less childhood disease. A particularly interesting explanation is that of more and better parental attention to children. Whatever the answer, the Flynn effect suggests we need to think carefully about the view that IQ is fixed. It probably is not fixed within individuals, and it is certainly not fixed across generations.

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