The Flynn Effect, Or Why Idiocracy Got It Wrong

Did you ever see Idiocracy? It’s considered a cult classic these days and, although I don’t consider it to be Mike Judge’s best work, it was a good enough satire to earn both a few laughs and also a concerned eyebrow at the perceived rise of anti-intellectualism in pop culture and the potential consequences of the fact that the more education one receives, the less likely that person is to have children.

Dumber society + more dumb people having dumb kids = disaster.

Seems like a pretty solid combination that will guarantee the future is filled with idiots, right? I mean, have you seen kids today? All they think about is their social networking and their (insert appropriate music genre here). They lack an appreciation for fine culture or complex thought, preferring a sound-bite society that’s easier for increasingly short attention spans. The preceding sentence will probably be too much for anybody under the age of 20 to grasp! In other words, people are getting dumber.

Except for the fact that they’re not. People are smarter than ever. On average, each generation is smarter than the previous ones.

WHAT YOU SAY?! How can this be? How can people not be getting dumber? Look at our decrepit culture! It doesn’t make any sense.

We can thank the Flynn Effect:

The Flynn Effect is the observation that each successive generation has a higher IQ than the last. The man who observed this and after whom the term is named, James Flynn, recently gave a fascinating talk at TED on why this might be.

“If you score the people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an average IQ of 70. If you score us against their norms, we would have an average IQ of 130,” James Flynn said in his talk.

Let’s nip one thing in the bud; using IQ as a measure of intelligence. We know there are many kinds of intelligence, some of which are much harder to quantify than others. IQ can’t measure creativity or emotional intelligence. That doesn’t mean an IQ score is devoid of value, however. Even if it tracks intelligence only in the very broadest sense, we can still derive useful information from it.

The information is telling us that IQ is rising with every generation. In fact, if you look at the way the IQ score is arranged, the goal post has to be moved constantly specifically because of this inflation. 100 is always the average. If too many people score above 100 and it moves the average up, the parameters of the test are altered to compensate.

Flynn has an explanation for why this upward trend is occurring:

“In 1900, three percent of Americans practiced professions that were cognitively demanding. Only three percent were lawyers or doctors or teachers. Today, 35 percent of Americans practice cognitively demanding professions, not only the professions proper like lawyer or doctor or scientist or lecturer, but many, many sub-professions having to do with being a technician, a computer programmer. A whole range of professions now make cognitive demands. And we can only meet the terms of employment in the modern world by being cognitively far more flexible.

So, there. Suck it, predictions of an idiotic future. We’re all much smarter than we give ourselves credit for. Like XKCD says, “People aren’t going to change, for better or for worse. Technology’s going to be so cool. All in all, the future will be okay! Except climate; we fucked that one up.”