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Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century Paperback – September 6, 2012

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Q&A with author James R. Flynn

You've often said that our minds are not becoming more intelligent, but rather, more modern. What do you mean by that?

Raven's Progressive Matrices uses images to convey logical relationships; the Wechsler tests consist of 10 subtests, some of which do much the same but others of which measure the traits intelligent people are likely to pick up over their life time, such as the ability to classify objects.

We do so well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, non-verbal symbols, and visual images that paint alternative realities.

There has been a transition from using the mind to manipulate the concrete world for advantage toward logical analysis of symbols increasingly abstracted from the appearance of the concrete world and even the literal appearance of the symbols themselves. This is what I call supplementing "utilitarian spectacles with "scientific spectacles"—which does not imply that the average person knows much science.

The great psychologist Alexander Luria did some wonderful interviews with pre-modern people:

There are no camels in Germany; the city of B is in Germany; are there camels there or not?

Reply: I don't know, I have never seen German villages. If B is a large city, there should be camels there.

But what if there aren't any in all of Germany?

Reply: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.

Note how the pre-modern mind refuses to abandon the concrete world and refuses to use logic to analyze a hypothetical situation. Today, we automatically classify things rather emphasize their differences, take the hypothetical seriously, and use logic to analyze both the hypothetical and abstract symbols.

What misconceptions about IQ do you disprove in your new book?

First, that IQ tests can measure intelligence over cultural distance. Some believe the low IQs of developing nations show that they do not have the intelligence to industrialize. In 1910, the US and the UK had a mean IQ of 70 and yet, they still industrialized.

Second, that IQ gains tell us nothing except that people do better on IQ tests. Take moral argument. It seems incredible to us that a father would kill his daughter because she had been raped for the sake of "family honor." We would ask, "What if you had been knocked unconscious and sexually assaulted?" But if he sees moral maxims as concrete things, impervious to change, rather than as general principles subject to logic, and sees no point in "speculating" about hypotheticals, he will dismiss your question as totally irrelevant.

Since 1950, gains on Vocabulary and Information subtests, at least for adults, have been large. More words means more concepts conveyed. More information means more connections perceived. Better analysis of hypothetical situations means more innovation. As the modern mind developed, people performed better not only as scientists and technicians but also as chief executives of corporations.

Third, that women average lower IQs than men. The most recent data for five advanced nations show women equaling or slightly surpassing men.

Fourth, that you should use outdated tests to execute capital offenders. Many of these men are not mentally competent. They took obsolete tests at school and since the standards of the time were lower, it looks as if their IQs are nearer to normal than they are.

Will IQ scores ever reach a plateau, or will the "Flynn effect" keep marching on?

Gains seem to have stopped in Scandinavia. Presumably, this is because certain causes have exhausted their potency. They have eliminated poverty, provided modern schooling for all, parents interact with their children from infancy, the ratio of adults to children in the home cannot fall further if they are to replace themselves, even solo-mothers are not isolated, leisure has becomes as filled with cognitively demanding pursuits as anyone would welcome, the economies have as many cognitively-demanding jobs (administrative, professional) as feather-bedding can provide.

One of my surprises was that gains are still robust in the nations for which we have recent data: America, Britain, Germany, and South Korea. I suspect none of them are as socially progressive as the Scandinavians. Gains will certainly keep marching on in the developing world, unless their progress is impeded by civil war, wars over water, or natural disasters.

Whether the gains continue or not, it will be tragic if we do not capitalize on those we have made thus far. Tertiary education turns out graduates with professional or vocational skills. But they do not get the key concepts they need to react critically to the mass of information the modern world uses to confuse them. How many graduates can do elementary economic analysis, recognize good social science, or know that appeals to nature in moral argument (heart transplants are unnatural) are bankrupt?


"Flynn has made this field his own ... This book's strengths are the authority of the author, the engaging writing style, the importance of the topics dealt with, and the up-to-date nature of the content."
--Ian J. Deary, University of Edinburgh

"No one but James Flynn could have written this book. It contains his most recent ideas about the causes and implications of the massive rise in IQ test scores that has been termed the "Flynn Effect", and is thus essential reading for anyone wishing to keep up to date with the latest thinking about the nature of IQ."
--Nicholas Mackintosh, University of Cambridge

"The scholarship of this book is detailed and exhaustive. The originality of thinking is sprinkled throughout the beginning chapters, and reaches a peak in the final two. With his unique perspective, Flynn literally is "opening new windows"."
--Jonathan Wai, Duke University

"Reveals new data on the evolution of the mind and predicts which mental abilities will continue to be enhanced...."
--Indie Sleepers, Publishers Weekly

"...Are We Getting Smarter? is full of thought-provoking reflections...
--John Naughton, The Guardian

"...[Flynn] remains one of the most original thinkers in IQ testing."
--Bruce Bower, ScienceNews

"... "If Mr. Flynn's explanation for rising IQ is right, he isn't merely explaining mankind's mental evolution. Reading-and critically evaluating-Mr. Flynn actually makes us smarter. Or at least more modern...."
--Bryan Caplan, Wall Street Journal

"...the book remains valuable for grasping our changing capacity for learning over time-and our room for growth."
--Samantha Murphy, Scientific American Mind

"...in making the case that the Flynn effect is connected to modernity, the book offers a broader indictment of intelligence research and the field of psychology as a whole..."
--Meehan Crist and Tim Requarth, Columbia University, The New Republic

"Flynn asks poignant questions and works hard to provide clear, thorough, well-researched answers.... This is a very worthy read by a leader in the field..."
--Devon Tomasulo, MFA, PsychCentral.com

"It's an uplifting tale, a reminder that human capacity is on the upswing."
--Nicholas Kristof, NYT

"...The book is stuffed with terrific tables of data that detail and support various trends in different places and with respect to different peoples of the world. Flynn has assumed the role of caretaker of our intellectual direction. With a simple, but elegant style and a literate tone, the author portrays our destiny in eye-opening statistical analysis. Then he delivers conclusions. A well-crafted sense of where we're heading. The book drills deep under your skin, constantly ferreting out new vistas-read it!"
--D. Wayne Dworsky, San Francisco & Sacramento Book Review

"...those accepting intelligence as a multidimensional construct, the different aspects of which interact with social developments (and Flynn makes a compelling case for that), will find the book an eye-opener."

"...Flynn writes clearly, succinctly, and wryly.... Those interested in research on intelligence should read this book.... Recommended..."
- D.S. Dunn, Moravian College, Choice

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (September 6, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1107609178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521665674
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #303,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I am not just kidding. Flynn uncovered in the early 80s that individuals' IQs gained about 3 pts per decade (Box 13, pg 74). Nearly 30 years later professionals within clinical psychology, education, law, and healthcare still ignore the impact of the Flynn Effect on their respective cognitive measurements.

He documents the critical consequences of ignoring the Flynn Effect. In the US any criminal with an IQ two full standard deviations below the average (IQ of 70) is deemed incompetent to stand trial and exempt from the death penalty. But, the majority of IQ tests are obsolete. An individual can get an IQ score of 76 (6 pts above incompetence) solely because of the test being outdated. Educators' assessment of children being gifted or cognitively impaired can be highly inaccurate. Giving an old test to children inflates their IQs. As a result, the selected gifted group will be far larger than it should be and many of the children needing special assistance will be ignored. The Flynn Effect also affects memory loss tests. And, health care professionals routinely administer obsolete tests. By doing so, they diagnose elderly individuals as doing just fine when they do need assistance in living.

Flynn proposes two solutions to resolve the Flynn Effect. The first one is updating tests frequently. The second one is adjusting scores downward by 0.3 pts per year. So, someone with an IQ of 120 associated with a test normed 20 years ago would have an adjusted IQ of 114. Somehow, the professions have rejected either approach.

Flynn considers intelligence a relative concept that needs to factor age of individuals (cognitive capabilities have their own lifecycle) and contemporary social context (Flynn Effect).
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Wikipedia defines the "Flynn Effect" thus: "The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day." In this book, James Flynn explores why IQ may be increasing and what the implications are.

Flynn himself explains what his book intends to accomplish (Page 1): "Whatever we are doing, we are making massive IQ gains from one generation to another. . .This book attempts to make sense of what time and place are doing to our minds." This book may be slow going for the novice, but it is an important work, one raising many provocative questions.

The Flynn Effect begins with the determination that as intelligence tests are revised, the standard for average performance (100 is calculated as the average score) are set based on people who take the tests. Over time, IQ scores rise. Even though the average (mean) score on different versions of IQ tests over time is 100, the scores over time need to be recalibrated to keep the mean at 100. So the mean stays the same--but the test takers are "smarter" than their predecessors. In that sense, people have been getting smarter. It is not only in the developed world that IQ gains have been ascertained; in many developing nations, IQ has also increased. To give a sense of how profound the changes have been, take the Netherlands. Compare IQ scores in 1982 with those from 1952. The person who got an average score (in the middle of the range of IQs) in 1982 would have scored higher than 90% of all Dutch in 1952.

Why the increases? Flynn believes that the Industrial Revolution and modernizing industry is a part of the explanation.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Are we getting smarter? Not this reviewer, at any rate. The interesting finding that IQ scores are steadily rising from one generation to the next (the Flynn effect) might reflect evolutionary changes in the human brain, but more likely is a societal phenomenon. Our evolving culture is making us better at test-taking and more comfortable with abstract kinds of thought. A number of other factors must be considered as well, for example, improved nutrition, better health, better medical care, educational opportunities, and increased genetic diversity due to outbreeding. Is there an overall intelligence factor, "g," above and beyond the various skills measured by intelligence testing? The author considers these and other questions, and without drawing definite conclusions, leads the readers through some fascinating explorations.

Unfortunately, the book is almost unreadable. Author Flynn writes dense thickets of prose, packed with statistical jargon, tables and charts. Who is the intended audience? Not the average educated layperson. The book seems to be written for a handful of experts in the field of intelligence testing, and for no one else. I found myself skimming the later chapters, pausing at the occasional paragraph of readable prose, and skimming on. The author is passionate about his subject, but has not made his material accessible for most readers.

If you have a background in education or psychology, and some familiarity with intelligence testing, you might find this book enlightening. For the rest of us, it's not recommended. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
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