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Have the IQ scores in people increased over the century? Learn about the Flynn Effect

You would have probably heard elders lament "Kids these days!" claiming that the current generation of youngsters aren’t as smart as the generation that came before them. However, psychologists who study human intelligence think otherwise and also say that the opposite might be true. Researchers who studied the Flynn effect have found that the IQ scores of children over the generations have improved over time.

What is the Flynn Effect?

Described in the 1980s by researcher James Flynn, the effect refers to the rise in IQ scores over the past century. Researchers studying this effect found wide support for this phenomenon. A research paper published by psychologist Lisa Trahan and her colleagues combined the results of other published studies based on over 14,000 participants, showed that the IQ scores have increased since the 1950s. Although researchers did document some exceptions, the IQ scores have gradually increased over time.

Why does the Flynn Effect happen?

Researchers put forward several theories to explain the Flynn effect. One of the explanations deals with health and nutrition. For example, the past century saw a decrease in smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy and discontinuation of the use of harmful lead paint and, the improvement in the prevention and treatment of harmful diseases. Psychologist and writer, Scott Barry Kaufman explained about it in the Psychology Today, where he stated that the Flynn effect serves as a reminder that when people are given the opportunities to prosper, they prosper.

Another explanation for the Flynn effect is based on the societal changes that have occurred in the past, as a result of Industrial Revolution. In a TED talk, Flynn explains that the world today is “a world where we've had to develop new mental habits, new habits of mind.” He also found that the IQ scores have increased rapidly on questions that ask to find similarities between different things and more abstract types of problem solving.

Several ideas have been put forward to explain why modern society might lead to higher scores on IQ tests. For example, today many people demand intellectually rigorous jobs. Education in schools have also changed. While a test in 1900s might have focussed more on memorisation, a test in today’s time seeks to focus on explaining the reasons behind something. Students finishing their higher education and family sizes being smaller, allowing children to pick up new vocabulary words while interacting with their parents, are some of the reasons for higher IQ. It has also been suggested that the entertainment that we consume today has become more complex.

What can we learn from studying the Flynn Effect?

The Flynn effect tells us that the human mind is much more adaptable and malleable than what we might have thought it would be. It seems that some of our thinking isn't necessarily innate but based on what we learn from our environment. When exposed to modern industrial society, we think about the world in different ways than our ancestors.

Staff writer to The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell stated that the Flynn effect tells that the IQ may not actually be what we think it is; instead of being a measure of natural, unlearned intelligence, it is something that can be shaped by the education we receive and the society we live in.


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