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.”

7 thoughts on “The Flynn Effect, Or Why Idiocracy Got It Wrong

  1. I feel like the assumption that intelligence is purely based off of genetics isn’t totally right. From Wikipedia, the parent/child correlation of intelligence is 0.22, once you take child rearing out of the picture. In fact, intelligence tends to regress towards the mean, so in general you can’t make accurate predictions about a child’s intelligence based off their parents.

    Just another wrench to throw in the works, I guess.

    1. I agree that a genetic component of one’s intelligence, outside of the genetic inheritablility of certain disorders such as Down’s, isn’t a large factor.

      I think Flynn himself would be in agreement, as well. The proposed explanations in the Wikipedia article on the Flynn Effect are better access to education, more mentally stimulating environments, and improvements in nutrition and reducing infectious diseases.

    1. Plato attributes a few quotes to Socrates about the degradation of the youth of Athens, but it’s hard to say whether it was actually something Socrates said or Plato’s words in his mentor’s mouth. From book 4 of the Republic, where Socrates (supposedly) complains about all the things the youth of Athens were neglecting:

      “I mean such things as these: when the young are to
      be silent before their elders; how they are to show respect to them by
      standing and making them sit; what honor is due to parents; what
      garments or shoes are to be worn; the mode of dressing the hair;
      deportment and manners in general. You would agree with me?” “Yes.”

      Regardless of whether it’s Plato or Socrates, you are absolutely correct that “the youth” have been in a state of moral, intellectual, cultural, and civic decay for the past 2,000 years. Damn kids.

      It’s amazing that human civilization has managed to survive.

  2. Plato, indeed. Thanks. I’ve rather started to link the whole “the young are no good anymore” thinking with tribalism (for the lack of a better term). As a species, we seem to want to connect with groups, ideally small-ish, onto which we can tack some superior attribute so that we have some feeling of superiority. Those people in the west that have no clearly-defined tribal groups (or clans, or kinship groups, or what have you) seem to build their identity-defining groups around sports teams or hobbies or political interests or broadly-defined ethnicities, for example. What’s really interesting is that those identities can be and often are multi-faceted – one individual feels connected with several groups. Age could well be just one such facet.
    Anyway. That was rather long. 🙂

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