Science Talk

The Flynn Effect: Modernity Made Us Smarter

James Flynn studies intelligence at the University of Otago in New Zealand. And he features prominently in an article called “Can We Keep Getting Smarter?” in the September issue of Scientific American magazine. Back on July 10, Flynn visited the SA offices, where he chatted with a group of editors

Podcast Transcription

Steve:       Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk posted on August 20th, 2012. I am Steve Mirsky. On this episode:

Flynn:        We have no idea of the gulf that separates our mind from people a hundred years ago in America. We've put on scientific spectacles, and they had on utilitarian spectacles.

Steve:       That's James Flynn. He studies intelligence at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and he's the discoverer of what's called the Flynn effect—the consistent rise in IQs over time around the world. He features prominently in an article called "Can We Keep Getting Smarter?", by Tim Folger in the September issue of Scientific American magazine. Back on July 10th, Flynn visited the Scientific American offices, where he chatted with a group of editors. What follows is an edited version of that wide-ranging discussion. The first voice you'll hear is senior editor Michael Moyer, who asks Flynn about his latest book titled, Are We Getting Smarter? You'll also hear me and senior editor Gary Stix.

Moyer:       And what's the big change in this book, since your original book?

Flynn:        Well, one of the big surprises is that in Scandinavia, the IQ gains tailed off towards the end of the last century. And many of us thought, and I had an open mind, that that would mean that they would tail off from the rest of the developed world. Well, three data sets are in now from America, Britain and Germany and they haven't. They seem to be humming along on the Wechsler tests—you know, the WIS and the WAIS—at just about three points per decade; we're in 21st century a decade now and there they still are. And this revises one's calculation a bit. I'd thought that 21st century would see the developing world catching up. Well, it is because their gains are going even faster, but it'll be tougher to catch up than I thought. I think it's wrong to look at the developing world in isolation from what's going there economically because IQ rises with modernity. Lynn and many others make the mistake in, sort of, thinking you have to leap from an IQ of 70 to 100 and then you modernize. Well, it's like going up a ladder. You gain a bit in terms of the modern mind-sets, you modernize the economy a bit, and then you go up again, you know, slowly.

Moyer:       You mentioned a number of times this idea of modernity and how that's a real driver in all this. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that there?

Flynn:        Well, take our friend, one of the disciples of Piaget, Alexander Luria, the great Russian psychologist. He had interviewed people in Russia in the 1920s who had not yet entered modernity. These were the headmen of villages; they were very intelligent. And he said to them, "Where there is always snow, bears are white. At the North Pole, there is always snow. What color are the bears there?" And they said, "I've never been there. The only bears I've seen are brown bears." And he said, "What do my words convey?" And they said, "Such a thing is not to be settled by words, but by testimony. If a wise man came to us from the North Pole and testified that bears were white, we might believe him." He said, "There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany; are there camels there?" And they said again, "I’ve never been to Hamburg. And he said, "But what do you think?" And they said, "Well, maybe Hamburg is a village and too small to accommodate camels." They were not willing to take the hypothetical seriously. They had a utilitarian framework, the same as Americans did in 1900. You ask an American kid in 1900 what dogs and rabbits have in common, they say, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." The right answer is they're both mammals. Today, that answer would be coming automatically. We have no idea of the gulf that separates our mind from people a hundred years ago in America. We've put on scientific spectacles and they had on utilitarian spectacles. They were splitters. If you're making use of the environment for advantage, you distinguish things. This animal leaves this track. This dog is good for hunting and that one isn't. We're lumpers; we're used to thinking that you classify the world as a prerequisite to understanding it, and we're highly willing to use logic on the abstract. Now you may think this is trivial, but it's what higher education requires and virtually all the managerial professions, is this type of mindset. And it's not trivial in other areas. I, of course, by trade am a moral philosopher; I only got into psychology accidentally. My main interest is moral  philosophy and epistemology, but I've had this other area as a second field now for many years. And if my brother and I argued with my father about race—he was an Irishman of the old school, and he hated the English so much he didn't have much energy to hate anyone else—but he had a mild prejudice against blacks. And if my brother and I said to him, "What if you woke up black tomorrow?" He would say, "That is the dumbest thing you've ever said. Who do you know?" Well, a modern racist would realize that you're asking him to be logically consistent about color, and he'll say something like, "Well if I woke up black it'd change me as a person." So, the quality of moral argument has been elevated by our ability to take the hypothetical seriously; same is true of political argument. If you look at the debate over women’s suffrage of 1918, you find congressmen putting in the Congressional record, things like, "My wife says she doesn't want to vote and that settles it for me." Who would put that in the congressional record today? It'd be humiliating. You have to have at least a façade of logical justification, don't you?

Steve:       I don't know, I think that mindset has returned to the Congress.

Flynn:        Unless you're running for president for the Republican Party. Most of us in New Zealand were totally disoriented by what we saw on television. Such a person could not get a nomination for a parliamentary seat, much less a president.

Steve:       Even on the conservative side.

Flynn:        No side. No party would put up someone like these people who are that ignorant and uninformed. But I have discovered a lot of interesting things that don't have to do with the developing world. I did one thing that I had not done before and no one else had done, and I looked at the WAIS subtest data, where the gains were there. And I'd always said from looking at risk data with school children, that there had been massive gains on these tests that require using logic on abstractions, like block design, picture arrangement. Block designs are, sort of, a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. And there had been very small gains on vocabulary, general information and arithmetical reasoning. The adult data that I now have analyzed in my new book is a revelation. There have been enormous adult gains on vocabulary. American school children over the last 50 years, for active vocabulary now, not passive—passive is what you can read—active is what you can use. Active vocabulary, American adults since 1950 have gained 17.4 IQ points over a full standard deviation. Kids have gained three, I'm sorry, four. So an enormous gulf has opened up, now this is where, you know people don't look at the right things with IQ gains—they are really symptoms of social evolution. What has happened to teenage subculture over the last 50 years that adults can no longer socialize them into their normal speech community? You know adult gains ought to be transferred to older school children automatically—they live with them. So, if they're in a vocabulary-enriched household with adults, the 16-year-old ought to automatically, but they aren't. The kids can understand their parents; there has not been an enlargement of the passive vocabulary gap. But the active vocabulary gap has grown enormously between 1950 and 2000.

Stix:          What do you think the components of the subculture are that have contributed?

Flynn:        Well, I think partially it's highly visual. I find my students—and every professor finds it—you ask them to name their favorite author today: No favorite author, or Wilbur Smith or Tolkien. Fifty years ago they would say Huxley, Steinbeck, Faulkner. Partially it's that. Partially they seemed to have developed their own distinctive speech and are highly resistant to mimicking the speech of adults in certain circles. You know the word "teenager" was never used before 1950; that's a post-1950 word. When I was a kid growing up—I'm 78 now—it was like every other society in the world. Adolescence was a time of impatience, when you wanted to become an adult and get adult prerogatives; and these were money, privacy and sex. But today you get all of these as a teenager without leaving home and earning a living and getting married. You know, they have accessed, you now have people who seem to want to remain teenagers through their 30s. Now I should say that this damage is not permanent. The 17-year-old today cannot mimic, in active speech, his parents' vocabulary. But they go to university. During the university years, about a fourth of the gap is made up and then when they get in the world of work and have to speak like adults, they very quickly learn to do so. So, what's interesting here is not that we're raising a generation that won't be able to talk as we do; they will be able to talk like us. What's interesting is what it tells us about the nature of teenage subculture, how distinctive its begin. It's as if you're dealing with a Welsh-speaking minority, in a sense, in the United Kingdom. They eventually pick it up. The other thing interesting that I picked up in looking at WAIS data was the bright tax. Contrary to all, everything that's expected in the literature, between 65 and 89, of course, many cognitive abilities fade. But what I never expected to find is the brighter you are, the quicker the downward curve of your analytic abilities. The analytic abilities, you know, are the things tested by number series and that stuff. If you're at all the Wechsler subtests at 17, if you trace someone who is, let's say 85 on all subtests, and compare them to someone whose at 130, the person at 130, in old age goes down about 30 points on analytic ability or 35, and then someone at 75 goes down 20, and every level it's more progressive. That is the brighter you are, the heavier the bright tax. Verbal, you get a bright bonus. That is the brighter you are, the less the decline in verbal intelligence.

Stix:          Does that relate to, for example, the work on cognitive reserve in Alzheimer's? Because that's probably more related to verbal than it is to analytical.

Flynn:        Well, I've tried to set up research designs that would disentangle physiological from other environmental factors. And you can put forward two hypotheses. The people in this room are in a highly verbal environment in terms of who you deal with. You also probably have to use in your work your analytic facilities much more than other people. Let's take the verbal first. When you retire, you may retire into an even more enriched verbal community of your peers. You don't have to do with employees in the public so much, you play bridge with your friends; and it could be environmental, that the reason that people with high verbal abilities, they actually after retirement have an enhanced gulf in terms of environmental enrichment. It may be that their analytical abilities are used mainly at work and while at work, they get much more analytic exercise than the average person; after work that diminishes. Or it could be that the analytic portions of the brain are like a high performance car: They require more maintenance in old age than an ordinary model. And we just don't know. I think it's probably a combination of the two.  There's one study that seems to show that there's a genetic influence on how quickly analytic abilities fade in old age, which is a small pointer towards the physiological factor. But that's the only stuff I've got. Whatever the curve downward, whether you decline quicker, if you're bright for analytic ability—and the same is true of processing speed; working memory is bright neutral, verbal bright bonus, processing speed and analytic bright tax. Whatever the reason for the downward go, it's still good to exercise your brain. You're familiar with the London taxi cab driver's study? You know, they have enlarged hippocampi because they use their mapping skills much more than the rest of us. This is why when people ask me, Are we more intelligent? I say, "I'll tell your four things that are much more informative than that. At conception, I don't think our brains would look any different. At autopsy, we would've used our brains over our lifetime very differently than our ancestors, and just as a weightlifter has different muscles at autopsy than a swimmer, probably the analytic portions of your brain are enlarged compared to your ancestors while the rote memory portions are not. You don't have to remember who your third cousins are and who are their wives and kids. As to whether our ancestors with this mean IQ of 70 were mentally retarded, of course they weren't. They could use logic on the utilitarian and function perfectly well in the concrete world. But we, thanks to the use of logic on the hypothetical and our propensity to classify, can attract a much wider range of problems. And I say, "You tell me whether we're more intelligent?" This is the cash value of the change. The word is unimportant. I would prefer to say our brains are more modern.

Moyer:       Modernity has touched a lot of places in the world at this point, so do you eventually see a leveling off?

Flynn:        I cannot see, there are three levels of causality. The most remote level, of course, is the industrial revolution. I mean it brought us into modernity and made it worthwhile mass educating people and scientific spectacles go with formal education. That is the ultimate cause. The proximate cause is how our minds are different in the IQ test room in our everyday life. You know, my father instinctively rebelled against using logic on the abstract; I don't. The intermediate causes are undoubtedly, I think, more formal schooling, more cognitively demanding jobs, more cognitively demanding leisure— there's some truth in what this fellow Johnson says: If you look at the TV programs, the plot lines are much more complicated today than they were 50 years ago. Smaller families, much richer interaction. You see if you have two adults and a child in the home, the vocabulary atmosphere is dominated by adult speech. If you have a black solo mother and three kids it's dominated by childish speech. So, richness—and you think this has got to stop eventually; the families are getting so small that we're virtually reaching replacement value. And indeed in some ways, we're retrogressing because there are more solo parents, which means a worse parent-child ratio. It seems to me that formal education sooner or later has got to reach a limiting factor in terms of how much it makes our mind scientific. I mean, at a certain point you just tend to classify and use logic on the hypothetical. I don't see how it can be pushed much further. And at a certain point, we're probably stuck in all the professional managerial and technical jobs we can featherbed into the system. You know, I guess, you can have hospital administrators triplicating their functions rather than just duplicating their functions, but there should be a limit. And that is why I'm a little surprised that in countries like America, Britain and Germany the IQ gains are soldering on. I thought the Scandinavian model is what we face. You know, there the family size, the elimination of poverty, the spread of good formal education, these things have reached a limit.

Moyer:       I'm curious, these gains keep going on as you say, in U.S., U.K., Germany…

Flynn:        They seem to be buzzing along at about 3 IQ points a decade.

Moyer:       And yet we've been modern for quite a while now…

Flynn:        Well I did a study; in the new book I have a study and it was very frustrating. I said, "I'm going to divide the IQ tests into three parts: the subtests that look like they have to do with modernization, like lock designs and mazes; the subtests that look as if they're focused primarily around education, like information, vocabulary and arithmetical reasoning.—and by the way, one of my findings is that we have totally failed, you know, here we've had a period where between 1950 and today, rather than 12 percent of Americans experiencing some tertiary educations, it's over 50 percent. What sort of arithmetical reasoning gain is there, other than about 3 IQ points? So, we have, in fact, with all of the enhancement of education, we cannot get people to think mathematically. And if you look at the problem, if you look at the nation's report card, big gains at 7, tail off by 12, gone at 17; when they have to start thinking mathematically to do geometry and algebra, the gains go. But you must tamper the importance of IQ with “characterological” traits like self-discipline and deferred gratification. The classic study here is the Seligman-Duckworth one in Pennsylvania where kids at 14, at the beginning of their 8th grade, were given both an IQ test and ranked on a self-control measure. Part of the self-control measure was the impressions of their teachers and parents, but part of it was the classic experiment of being given an envelope sealed with a dollar bill and if you brought it back after a week later you got two dollars. And they found that the self-restraint index and the IQ index were just about equally predictive. So, it would be wrong, you cannot if your genetic endowment for intelligence is extremely low, no amount of effort will get you into Harvard. There are IQ thresholds but as you say, the normal IQ threshold for getting into Berkeley in 1967—and I have data from Berkeley—the normal IQ threshold there was 7 points lower for Chinese-Americans than for white Americans getting into Berkeley. You know, if the whites started at a 120, the Chinese started at 113. I don't have data on gender, but I would bet my soul that if the boys started at a 122, girls started at a 118. And clearly if you take an individual who is on fire with the desire to grapple with cognitively significant problems—we cracked a problem with identical twin studies. The identical twin studies show that genes were overwhelmingly dominant in IQ differences. For example, if you take randomly selected individuals, they'll differ by 16.92 IQ points. Identical twins separated at birth who grew up normally differ by a 4 or 5 and this led Jensen to conclude that three quarters of IQ gains were genetic and only a quarter was environmental, for obvious reasons; you know, identical twins have identical genes. Yet IQ gains over time show that environmental factors have enormous potency. So how do we square this evidence that environment is so weak? And we set up the—at Holland you probably know from my work, the Dutch gained 20 points on Raven's in one generation and they actually dug out the 18-year-old of today recruits, their own fathers' IQ scores, and over that generation there's still been a 20-point gain, which is huge. Well the Dickens- Flynn model says this: Take basketball. Any of you from Indiana? Probably not, but you all know who Larry Bird was? Indiana is a basketball-mad state. Identical twins born in Indiana, separated at birth. Since they have identical genes, they both tend to be about 4 inches taller than average and a slightly quicker reflex arc. One is raised in Muncie and one in Terre Haute. Thanks to their identical genes, even in preschool basketball, they both get selected more often—you know, how you used to choose? That means when they get to grade school, they've already had an enriched basketball environment because they've had more play. Tend to get on their grade school team, now they both have team play; tend to make their high school team, now both have professional coaching. Now the separated identical twins are not randomly distributed to environments, they selectively imitate one another's environments. Since they have identical genes, the environmental selection gives them environments far more in common. In the twin studies, all this is counted as genes. When these two kids grow up, they will be far closer together for basketball quotient than randomly selected individuals. But what they have in common is not only the same genes, but they both had team play, professional coaching and all these powerful environmental variables that have been harnessed to genes. So that explains why genes look so feeble in twin studies, because their potency is masked by the fact that they are correlated with genetic differences.

Steve:       You would have loved to have studied the Van Arsdale twins—remember them?

Flynn:        I probably would have, yes; I have heard of them. Now let's take IQ gains over time; basketball over time. When I was a kid on my high school basketball team, I was reasonably good, and I graduated—I was 17 in 1951—and some of us were kicking around during the holidays and five years later, the coach said "Come back and scrimmage the varsity." And they just killed us. And it wasn't that they were taller and quicker, the game had just changed. They could shoot with either hand; that never occurred to me. If I approach you, and I can break either to my right or left to make a layup, that's much more difficult for you to anticipate than if, you know, I've got to break to my right. They just killed us. When television came into America, basketball took on the aspect of a glamor sport, and ghetto kids who couldn't afford a catcher's mask and the firstbaseman's mitt and bats and balls, they could all pool together and get a basketball. And there was an explosion of skills and this brought in what we call the social multiplier. The rising mean drags up all the individuals; that is as soon as kids started shooting layups left handed, everyone had to follow suit or you were left behind. And then you started doing  a close-to-the-basket hook with your left hand and people had to develop that skill, and then you started passing with your left hand and people had to develop that skill. So, over generations, an exogenous environmental factor can come into the mix and bring in an enormous escalation of skills over time. So, that's the solution to the dilemma. Individual differences within a generation, genetic differences have their hand on the multiplier throttle. If you're a bit taller and quicker than I, you begin to harness all the environmental advantages of that. So the genetic difference between us captures the environmental input. Between generations, the potency of environmental factor stands out in all its nakedness, because there's no genetic upgrading in one generation, and the environmental factors are seen for the enormous potency they have. This was very satisfying to us because we'd been baffled—what the hell is going on here? In this book, I'm just publishing with Cambridge, the last chapter's entitled, "The Sociological Imagination." That of course was a phrase coined by C. Wright Mills in his book with the same name. Anyone remember C. Wright Mills, the Columbia sociologist? And the besetting sin, you see as an amateur coming from outside, it struck me almost immediately—because I've never taken psychology or read a psych text book—and what I've noticed over my 20-years holiday in this discipline is the extent to which people who study IQ data and even other data about individual differences never concoct a sociological scenario that might explain the data. They think it's self-evident. Since twins have closer IQs when they're raised apart, it's got to be all genes. You don't actually look at the social dynamic that might explain the phenomena. I keep saying, "There are people behind those numbers." Unless you can give me a social scenario, don't tell me you know what these… it drove me crazy when people said, "Black women have no desire for a stable marriage and are licentious." Because, of course, I published in Where Have All the Liberals Gone? the data and it shows that for every 100 black women of marriageable age, there are only 57 black men who are still alive, not in prison, not on drugs or not, you know, were employed even half-time last year. But Russian women after World War II came back with 25 percent of the men killed. Everyone assumed there would be lots of solo-mother families. Black women we crucify, they're even worse off, there are only 57 viable men, and whatever racial intermarriage exists, disproportionately takes stable black men out of the pool: Two of them leave for every white husband that comes in. So racial intermarriage actually exacerbates the problem. I have finally set to rest in this book one of the hypotheses which is used most often to create a racial hierarchy. You heard of Philippe Rushton? And he has this ice age scenario, which Jensen and Kamin share; and when the human race came out of Africa, the theory is that East Asians, Koreans, Japanese and Chinese, were trapped north of the Himalayas during the ice ages and therefore were selected most rigorously by a harsh environment for intelligence and for prudence and all sorts of things. Whites were just north of the Alps, it was pretty rigorous but not as bad, while the blacks were frolicking in Africa. And this is supposed to mean that East Asians have better genes for IQ, whites are in the middle and blacks at the bottom. But I've been onto this for years, and I've finally found relevant data. All DNA sequencing now indicates that the Chinese of today are two groups. North of the Yangtze they did come from the Tibetan plateau; south of the Yangtze the Chinese out of Africa came along the coastal route along India and South East Asia, and they never were north of the Himalayas. Now this genetic divide in China is quite clear and the non-ice age genes of course are more frequent as you get towards the southern coast. And the of course you would have to predict if you were Kamin and Jensen that IQ would fall off between north and south of China. And terribly frustrating, I couldn't get any data and then, lo and behold, it turns out that the Chinese of Singapore are almost entirely from Guangdong province which is the southern most province and according to Lynn's own data they have the highest IQ in the world. So, the ice age is no longer; that scenario is now blitzed. Indeed if you allow for the fact that only three quarters of the population of Singapore is Chinese and one quarter is Malay, the Chinese of Singapore on his table are well above mainland Chinese. Now this doesn't settle the issue. It merely shows that this environmental hypothesis that has been given so much credence has no plausibility.

Steve:       The article, "Can We Keep Getting Smarter?", is in the September issue of Scientific American. We'll be right back after this word from Kerri Smith at The Nature Podcast.

Kerri Smith: On The Nature Podcast this week, mapping food preferences along the Silk Road, synthesizing an important hormone in seven easy steps and the return of the laser's predecessor, the maser.

Steve:       That should be of special interest to any fans of the sportscaster Bill Mazer. Just go to That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site,, where you can check out our slide show called "Blind Sight: Animals That See without Eyes", such as the butterflies with photoreceptors on their butts, and follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet whenever a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @sciam S-C-I-A-M. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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