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.”

Happiness Is Being An Aging Liberal

A friend (who also happens to be my most dedicated commentator) sent me a link to a new study on what makes us happy. Now, typically I approach such things with a bit of skepticism. It is, after all, common to see studies touting sample sizes of mere handfuls or studies lasting for very short lengths of time. Not this one, however! This study followed 268 men for seventy-five freaking years. That’s pretty damn impressive, in and of itself. Another impressive fact, aside from the length of the study, was the breadth of it:

. . . measuring an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits—from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum”—in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.

Now that is some thorough research. I’ve honestly never wondered whether the “hanging length of the scrotum” might contribute, positively or negatively, to one’s level of happiness.

Some of the data proves what common sense already dictated: drinking is bad for your happiness, smoking kills you. Nice to have a scientific confirmation for these things, but nothing really earthshaking yet. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that bit soon.

It was interesting to me that “there was no significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range and men with IQs higher than 150.” It seems a little bit counter-intuitive, but if I might speculate, perhaps this is because the 110-115 range is the IQ most likely to have a decently paying job while individuals in the 150+ range are more likely to pursue intellectually stimulating professions that offer only comparable or inferior salaries. Like I said, this is speculation on my part; the study itself indicates that it is a higher number of “warm relationships” rather than IQ that contributes more towards high income and personal happiness.

For me, here’s the statistic that I found both the most interesting and also the most personally satisfying:

Aging liberals have more sex. Political ideology had no bearing on life satisfaction—but the most-conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average age of 68, while the most-liberal men had active sex lives into their 80s. “I have consulted urologists about this,” Vaillant writes. “They have no idea why it might be so.”

So while my liberal ideology won’t make me more satisfied with my life, it will mean I’ll likely have more sex. And while that might not lead to happiness on its own, I certainly can’t imagine where it’s going to hurt my chances at happiness. I don’t know about you, but this fact makes me feel a certain smug sense of satisfaction and vindication, which is not to say that I felt my beliefs needed vindication. It’s just one of those things.

If you’d like to find out the true cause of happiness, since it’s not a higher IQ or more sex, check out the article.