The Flynn Effect, Distilled
are we getting smarter and smarter each year?
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 22 seconds
What we’re pouring (poring) over: The Flynn Effect
why we’ve been crushing it on our IQ tests without trying
Why is this a cool topic? Our IQs have been rapidly improving over time.
On average, we go up about three IQ points per decade in the United States. If an adult who scored average today took the test a century ago, they would be in the 98th percentile.
The increasing test performance over time appears on every major test, in every age range, at every ability level, across over thirty countries. Everyone’s IQ is increasing.
How do we know we’re not just doing better because we have internet access and more world knowledge? Because the IQ test is so standardized, it’s set up in a way that an alien could land on Earth and still take the test. So why does each generation get better at it?
What to know about the Flynn Effect: James R. Flynn discovered IQs were rising, and in 1987 he published his findings that there has been an increase in correct IQ test answers with each generation. The Flynn Effect.
This rocked scientists’ world: how could our cognitive ability be changing so drastically? People suggested different explanations: better nutrition? Better education? The environment? Maybe we’re just straight up better at taking tests? But none of these could explain the fact that everyone’s scores across the board have steadily improved, regardless of background.
What Flynn found is that we now see the world through “scientific spectacles.” We no longer rely on just our own direct experience to make sense of the world. We are comfortable with the hypothetical. We can use abstract concepts and classification schemes to arrive at a conclusion without prior applicable knowledge.
Like this spatial reasoning question, in which you figure out that the triangle has to be at the bottom of the square, because the other triangles are at the bottom, and the squares are at the top, and the circles are in the middle. (These are so fun)
The problem: Is IQ a measure of intelligence? That’s the Big Question we’re tackling today. Are we actually getting smarter, or are we just getting smarter at one particular type of smart?
This has been a HEATED debate in the psychology world, because it depends on how you define intelligence. What makes one brain better at certain tasks than another brain — and what kind of tasks do we care about? Someone who is kinesthetically intelligent (such as a dancer) may operate differently from someone who is logically intelligent (like a software engineer).
What the Flynn effect tells us is that the IQ test specifically measures how good we are at abstract conceptual thinking. Our brains aren’t actually more powerful, but as the world has modernized, we have gotten better at a certain kind of thinking.
As Flynn put it, “If by ‘intelligence’ you mean a brain engineered to accomplish greater things, then we've made no progress at all. But if you mean: Is our ability to attack a wider range of conceptual problems improved? Then yes, we have gained in intelligence.”
What to do now with this information: Enjoy your generational increase in abstract thinking ability!
Also, let’s keep the trend going. Flynn himself (who just passed away in 2020) was a major proponent of generalized knowledge. You should be able to use the same frameworks to different subjects and problems. And this comes not from specializing in any one thing, but rather conceptual, transferable skills that enable you to move freely from category to category.
Flynn believed that education is too narrowly focused these days, and that in order to keep those abstract, critical thinking skills sharp, we should embrace a variety of disciplines.
In other words, multi-passionate thinking.
Go to the source:
Smarter than ever? (American Psychological Association): This Q&A with Flynn from 2013 is a good read.
Logical reasoning test: Take a break from Wordle and try this fun aptitude test online that I got the triangle question from.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World: I’ve been reading this fascinating book by David Epstein, and the first thing it does is describe the Flynn Effect.
This week’s beverage pairing
Avalanche Amber Ale, Breckenridge Brewery
My passion for ambers has been well-documented, but I can’t help it! It’s the superior beer. The Avalanche Amber is a perfect amber, the amber of all ambers. It reminds me of the Carlsbad Chronic (another perfect amber) in that it’s extremely well-balanced: strong yet sessionable, flavorful yet smooth. Think of the Avalanche as the Colorado cousin to the Carlsbad Chronic.
Other random things I have on my reading list this week
Workplace 'energy vampires' can drain your life force. Stop them with these tips (CNN): If you watch What We Do In the Shadows, you’re familiar with energy vampire Colin Robinson. Well, there appear to be a lot of Colin Robinsons in our midst these days. Here’s how to fight them off.
Lawsuit prompts Grubhub to add disclosures about hidden fees (TechCrunch): The delivery apps are the WORST.
The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto (The New York Times): “As it’s gone mainstream, crypto has inspired an unusually polarized discourse. Its biggest fans think it’s saving the world, while its biggest skeptics are convinced it’s all a scam — an environment-killing speculative bubble orchestrated by grifters and sold to greedy dupes, which will probably crash the economy when it bursts.” Check out this great crypto explainer — and then my Distilled issue on why I’m not a fan.
Taco Bell workers are getting new uniforms. Here's what they look like (CNN): The new T-bell unis are actually fire and this is important news.
I am so inconsistent on sending this out, so I hope this was a fun surprise in your inbox! Have a great weekend and see you soon.