The Flynn Effect: Generational Increases in Intelligence Test Scores

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  • 0:01 Intelligence
  • 1:15 Flynn Effect
  • 2:45 Possible Causes
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

IQ scores are supposed to measure how well a person will do in school. But, what happens when the average IQ score isn't the same from generation to generation? In this lesson, we'll examine the Flynn effect and what might cause it.

Intelligence

Judy is a proud mom of a little boy named Sam. She thinks Sam is amazing: he's adorable and funny, and he's smart - really, really smart. In fact, Judy has always thought that Sam was smarter than she was, and it was confirmed recently when he took an IQ test and scored a lot higher than Judy. Intelligence is scholastic aptitude; that is, it is a measure of skills needed to succeed in school. It is often measured by a test that results in a standardized score representing a person's intelligence, which is known as an intelligence quotient, or IQ, score.

When Judy's son Sam took the IQ test, it was measuring important skills like abstract thinking and problem solving. The resulting score doesn't tell how good a person Sam is or what all his talents and strengths are, but they do represent how good he is likely to be at school. And because Sam scored higher than Judy, it is likely that he will be better at school than she was. Let's look closer at one reason why Sam might have scored higher than Judy, the Flynn effect, and some possible explanations for it.

Flynn Effect

Judy is impressed that Sam scored higher than she did on the IQ test. But, what does that mean? Is he smarter than she is, or is there something else going on?

IQ tests have been around since the turn of the 20th century. As we mentioned, they measure skills that are needed to succeed in school, like abstract thinking skills. They are also standardized and normed, which means that no matter what age you are, the average IQ score is 100. But in 1994, James R. Flynn noticed that something was wrong about the average IQ score and actual IQ scores. He discovered that IQ scores increase from one generation to the next, which is called the Flynn effect after him.

Flynn noticed that each generation scores between five and 25 points higher than the previous one, so that the IQ scores for Judy's generation might have been 100, but the next generation (Sam's generation) would have an average IQ score of 110 or 115. This has been found to be true across cultures, for every country where data is available. Thanks to the Flynn effect, IQ tests are changed and made harder every so often, so that the average IQ score remains at 100. But there's a bigger question at the heart of the Flynn effect: what's going on? Why is every generation scoring better? Are we, as humans, just getting smarter and smarter?

Possible Causes

The Flynn effect has been analyzed and demonstrated by many different people, but no one really knows why it's occurring. There are some theories, though:

1. Measurable skills - Flynn's own theory is that the increase in IQ scores represents the skills being measured, not the overall intelligence of society. For example, he believes that the scores are changing because we are becoming better at abstract thinking skills, not necessarily at intelligence.

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