General Intellegence on the Rise

Every once in a while, I’ll grab and old issue of WIRED Magazine and thumb through just to gander at what got our attention only five or eight years ago, what cell phones were hot, how much memory we lusted for, and even a few ads for Apple Newton PDAs.

Yesterday I reached back only a year and a half to be reminded of an article that I merely mentioned, then, in this blog.  It concerned IQ tests, and evidence that we are getting smarter.  U.S. born, New Zealand philosophy professor, James Flynn has been the principal researcher behind this trend, that for decades IQ scores in industrial countries have been on the rise.

The trend Flynn discovered in the mid-’80s has been investigated extensively, and there is little doubt he’s right.  In fact, the Flynn Effect is accelerating.  US test takers gained 17 IQ points between 1947 and 2001.  The annual gain from 1947 through 1972 was 0.31 IQ points, but by the ’90s it had crept up to 0.36. (Johnson 100-105)

A rise in IQ raises many questions, such as, “Why?”  Classic research indicates that IQ is inherited. 

Look at IQ scores for thousands of individuals with various forms of shared genes and environments, and hunt for correlations. This is the sort of chart you get, with 100 being a perfect match and 0 pure randomness (see chart)

So, if intelligence is a matter of genes, does this mean we are evolving?  Well, perhaps, but probably not that fast.  So what is it about  our supposedly dumbed-down environment that’s making people smarter?  The WIRED article suggests that it isn’t schools, “..since the tests that measure education-driven skills haven’t shown the same steady gains.”

Flynn has his theories, though they are speculative.  He says,

I realized that society has priorities. Let’s say we’re too cheap to hire good high school math teachers. So while we may want to improve arithmetical reasoning skills, we just don’t. On the other hand, with smaller families, more leisure, and more energy to use leisure for cognitively demanding pursuits, we may improve – without realizing it – on-the-spot problem-solving…

…Over the last 50 years, we’ve had to cope with an explosion of media, technologies, and interfaces, from the TV clicker to the World Wide Web. And every new form of visual media – interactive visual media in particular – poses an implicit challenge to our brains: We have to work through the logic of the new interface, follow clues, sense relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the very skills that (IQ) tests measure – you survey a field of visual icons and look for unusual patterns.

I wonder if we might see, in the next few years, another acceleration of general intelligence, as people who have grown up on hypertext and massively complex game worlds start taking adult IQ tests.

This is a generation of kids who, in many cases, learned to puzzle through the visual patterns of graphic interfaces before they learned to read. Their fundamental intellectual powers weren’t shaped only by coping with words on a page. They acquired an intuitive understanding of shapes and environments, all of them laced with patterns that can be detected if you think hard enough. Their parents may have enhanced their fluid intelligence by playing Tetris or learning the visual grammar of TV advertising. But that’s child’s play compared with Pok�mon.

You can read the article online at:

Johnson, Steven. “Dome Improvement.” WIRED Magazine May 2005: 100-105.

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Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.