How did we all get to be so clever?

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

Thanks to our improved ability in abstract reasoning, we are all getting better at IQ tests. Some scientists think they know why

IQ SCORES have increased steadily in the 20th century, a phenomenon discovered 28 years ago by James Flynn, who researches at the University of Otago, New Zealand. This is an ongoing and worldwide phenomenon: scores are improving across the IQ spectrum by 0.3 points per year, which adds up to three points per decade. The phenomenon is generally known as the Flynn Effect (FE). It was reviewed by Tim Folger in last month’s issue of Scientific American.

This is a dramatic phenomenon. It means that, on average, your children score 10 points more than you on IQ tests and, if this continues, by 2100 our descendents will exceed our current scores by about 30 points – that is the difference between the top 2 per cent of the population and the average IQ. If it continues, people in the future will attain genius levels of intelligence relative to our standards.

But is there a natural limit to this phenomenon? Almost all the improvements noted in the FE lie in a subset of intelligence attainment known as abstract reasoning. Scores in such areas as arithmetic and vocabulary have not significantly improved. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children has sections assessing different skills. Two sections are devoted to abstract reasoning: one deals with similarities, and the other with geometric patterns. A similarity question might be: “How are a rabbit and an elephant alike?” A low-scoring answer might be, “They both have four feet”, and a high-scoring answer might be, “They are both animals”. The second answer transcends simple physical qualities.

These tests were designed to be culture-free measurements of “fluid intelligence” – an innate capacity to solve unfamiliar problems.

Ainsley Mitchum and Mark Fox, psychologists at Florida State University, quoted by Folger, suggest that our enhanced capacities for abstract thinking may be linked to a new flexibility in how we perceive objects.

Most researchers do not believe the FE reflects an increase in raw brainpower, but that it shows how modern our minds have become. This world increasingly calls on us to recognise and make connections between abstract categories and this constant practice is making us smarter in this respect. If you don’t constantly classify abstractions and use logic, you cannot master the modern world. It has also been suggested that sophisticated video games train the mind in the skills needed for IQ tests.

Compared to our forebears, our minds have changed. Flynn believes it started with the industrial revolution when agricultural jobs were replaced by technical and managerial jobs, mass education began and family size started to contract. Professions emerged, such as engineer and architect, that demanded a mastery of abstract principles. Education drove innovation, setting up a positive feedback loop between our minds and the technology-based culture. This is still operating strongly and there is no reason to think it will end soon.

Flynn explains this interaction between mind and culture using an analogy. The maximum speed of cars was low in 1900 because roads were bad. When roads improved, engineers designed faster cars. The faster cars called for better roads that, when built, encouraged engineers to design even faster cars, and so on. Our minds and culture are locked in a similar positive feedback loop. Gains in technology demand minds capable of accommodating the change and the changed minds further reshape the world.

Joseph Rodgers, a psychologist at Oklahoma University, says no single cause can explain the universality of the FE. Some of the most likely causes are the positive feedback loop between mind and culture, universal education, improved childhood nutrition, smaller families and the influence of educated mothers on children. Even when some of the causes disappear, as for example in the second World War, the others keep the effect moving along.

The FE is making us smarter, but not wiser. The principles of wisdom are well established – such as moderation, compassion, forgiveness, accountability, and discipline – but we can be markedly reluctant to embrace them.

Improved intelligence can be used to create good things, or to destroy. Folger ends his article by hoping we will not destroy ourselves but keep building a world that will make us smarter and smarter, where our descendants will marvel at our simplicity.


William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC. understandingscience.ucc.ie

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