What is causing the IQ increase over the generations?
It’s an important question, as the rise hasn’t been minor. I’m amazed every time I consider that the average IQ used to be what, by comparison to the present, would be considered extremely low intelligence, functionally retarded even if you go back a few generations from present living generations. If you have an average person today take an IQ test designed earlier last century, they would get results, relative to the results when the test was first given, that show them as being quite brilliant.
It makes one wonder what is measured by IQ tests.
This IQ increase is called the Flynn Effect. It was named after James Flynn who wrote a number of papers about it based on his international and cross-generational observations of testing, although Richard Zynn first observed it on a more limited scale in the Japanese population.
The Flynn Effect has been seen in both crystallized and fluid intelligence. The former is basically learned intelligence. This shows what you know and how well you are able to use it. The latter is more about how you are able to think, specifically abstract thinking and non-verbal problem-solving. It is the ability to deal with new and unique problems.
(As a side note, I realized how this applies to my own cognitive abilities. When I was youngr, I was delayed in my crystallized intelligence and precocious in my fluid intelligence. I was so delayed in the one that teachers initially thought I might have been retarded, but IQ testing showed that I measured high in pattern recognition and puzzle-solving. My strengths helped me compensate for my weaknesses. But if it had been reversed, compensation would have been much more challenging.)
The greatest and most consistent IQ increases have been measured in the fluid intelligence. No one exactly knows why, but explanations are diverse. Flynn sees it as primarily an increase in abstract thinking in line with the demands of modern industrialized society with all of its complexities: infrastructures, social systems, economies, technologies, visual media, video games, etc. Flynn points out how rural people even just a century ago didn’t demonstrate much predilection for abstractions (see Luria’s interviews with isolated rural Russians). With a different focus, others propose that the main change has been in terms of health standards and environmental conditions, that have allowed greater brain development.
The reasons interest me less at the moment. I wanted to note that the changes seen across the generations are quite real and significant, whatever they might mean. They are also continuing in many countries, including the United States, although the pattern doesn’t hold in all countries. We Americans haven’t yet hit the ceiling of IQ limits, and that applies to all demographic groups, although those on the lower end of the scale are rising faster and hence the IQ disparities are shrinking.
So, about this trend, what does it represent? Where is it heading?
There are some correlations that I find intriguing. Higher average IQ correlates to greater liberal-mindedness. Many studies have shown this. It seems related to corrleations found between other cognitive abilities and predispositions: openness to experience, thin boundaries, fantasy proneness, creativity, empathy, emotional sensitivity, social awareness, etc.
This probably connects to fluid intelligence, the ability to deal with new, unique, and unusual situations and problems. I’ve pointed out before that the strength and weakness of liberalism is its emphasis on abstractions, both critical thinking and wide-ranging empathy being dependent on this. There is a psychological fluidity with liberalism that appears to be linked to cognitive and intellectual fluidity. I’ve also noted this may be the reason that research has shown it easier to shift a liberal into a conservative mindset than a conservative into a liberal mindset. Liberals easily fall prey to contact highs, both psychological and ideological.
Unsurprisingly, liberalism (in particular, social liberalism) has increased in unison with rising IQ. Also, social democracy has spread and become more dominant following the wide-scale availability of knowledge because of movable type printing presses, mass publishing, public libraries, public education, etc; and is likely to spread further as all of these contributing factors spread further and are magnified by the internet and various new media technologies. Others have observed that the Axial Age began and came to fruition because of the development and popularization of alphabetic writing, scrolls and then bound books, and the formation of libraries. That beginning, uneven and shaky, did more fully take hold during the Enlightenment and greater still with industrialization.
Steven Pinker has made the argument that this corresponds to an impressive decrease of violence per capita across the centuries. This is what is called the “moral Flynn effect.” It’s not just an improvement of social and health conditions, but an actual change at the level of psychological and cognitive functioning, at least so the theory goes.
Fluid intelligence isn’t just about cold analysis, dry logic, and intellectual problem-solving. It’s more importantly about seeing patterns and connections and the ability to shift perspectives, such as ideological worldviews, ethnic cultures, and personal experiences. It’s not just abstract thinking, but it definitely involves abstract thinking. To empathize with someone far different from you requires an abstract capacity of universalizing human nature and seeking commonality in human experience. There is no way to go from concrete thinking to such inclusive extremes of empathy, to go from the known of one’s own experience and into the unknown of imagining other viewpoints.
You can see this mindset having struggled to take hold during the Enlightenment and early modern revolutionary era, and even well into the 19th century. One of the greatest debates at that time, including among the American founders, was whether all humans had a basic human nature. Did all people, even peasants and slaves, have a common experience of self-awareness, thought, and feeling? Did all people feel pain and suffering, desire happiness and freedom? Were all humans really the same on some fundamental level or were some populations more like animals?
These seem like silly questions to many modern people in modernized societies, but that wasn’t always the case. It has only been over this past century that psychological understanding has become common, and this has been in concert with scientific thought becoming more widespread, the two being inextricably connected. To see the world through a stranger’s eyes requires a quite complex process of cognitive ability. It has to be learned and developed. No one is simply born with this capacity.
It’s amazing that we have advanced so far that we now take so much of this for granted. Still, we have much further to go. It does get me to wondering. Will we reach a tipping point when the American or global population reaches a certain level of IQ and education, specifically in terms of increasing ability of complex thought and perspective-taking? The average American today is smarter and more well educated than was the ruling elite from centuries ago. If you think the present generations of Americans are stupid, you should have seen their ancestors before most of the population was educated and literate.
On the other hand, some worry that increased abstract thought is causing a loss of concrete thought.But I doubt it is a zero sum game. By way of transcend and include, abstract thought moreso builds upon than replaces concrete thought. It’s that combining of cognitive abilities that allows for ever more complex thought. That is what I hope is the case. We are presently undergoing a massive social experiment to test this hypothesis.
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Swords into Syllogisms
by Randal R. Hendrickson