Flynn Effect: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 The Search for Intelligence
  • 0:32 The Flynn Effect and…
  • 2:15 Types of Intelligence
  • 3:28 Nature vs Nurture
  • 4:04 Health and Education…
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

In this lesson, we investigate the Flynn Effect and explore its relation to intelligence and intelligence testing. Learn why the Flynn effect is important in psychology, and test yourself with quiz questions.

The Search for Intelligence

Intelligence research and the debate over what the word 'intelligence' really means is a large part of the field of psychology. Psychologists began developing intelligence tests in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since then, intelligence tests have continued to be refined to increase their validity and reliability. As these tests have improved, they have become widely used across the world as measures of future performance.

The Flynn Effect and Its Interpretation

James Flynn was a professor in New Zealand who became famous for his research and findings in intelligence. The 'Flynn effect' refers to Flynn's finding that the average intelligence scores increased steadily over the past century in the U.S. and other Western industrialized nations. In 1994, a book called The Bell Curve popularized the term. Although the book was not written by him, the authors named the effect after James Flynn, whom they believed had brought the observation to light.

As new tests are developed, they are standardized to an average score of 100 to allow interpretation and comparison between tests. Because of standardization, Flynn was able to conclude that average intelligence scores have increased about three points per decade.

So, can we conclude that we are smarter than our parents and grandparents? James Flynn disagrees. He believes that these changes in scores do not mean that we are getting smarter overall. Flynn recently proposed that people are getting smarter at skills that are more important in our society today, particularly abstract thinking. In the past century, our society has progressed from being agricultural to being industrial and is now information-based. As our society has progressed, people have become better at thinking in abstract, scientific terms.

His theory is supported by the fact that these increases are large on intelligence subtests that focus on abstract thinking, while the gains on traditional subjects, such as vocabulary and mathematics, have been very small. That brings us back to the original question: What is intelligence? Could we really be getting smarter? Let's look at the controversies surrounding these questions and how that relates to the Flynn effect.

Types of Intelligence

For as long as intelligence tests have existed, so has the debate about what intelligence really means. Is it one single general ability or a collection of numerous specific abilities? Psychologists who study intelligence have created many theories to try and answer that question. Some prefer a broad definition, where others have proposed as many as 100 types of specific intelligence.

One of the more popular theories states that general intelligence can be split into two types of intelligence. One, crystallized intelligence, refers to accumulated knowledge and information, such as facts and verbal or mathematical skills. Two, fluid intelligence, is comprised of skills such as abstract reasoning, logic and problem solving and is separate from acquired knowledge.

Some psychologists have extended the definition of intelligence by including other forms of ability. Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences that includes eight types of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal and naturalist. Gardner believes that we all have each of these distinct intelligences in differing amounts.

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