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Flynn Effect

The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores that were measured in many parts of the world over the 20th century. When intelligence quotient (IQ) tests are initially standardized using a sample of test-takers, by convention the average of the test results is set to 100 and their standard deviation is set to 15 or 16 IQ points. When IQ tests are revised, they are again standardized using a new sample of test-takers, usually born more recently than the first. Again, the average result is set to 100. However, when the new test subjects take the older tests, in almost every case their average scores are significantly above 100. Test score increases have been continuous and approximately linear from the earliest years of testing to the present. For example, a study published in the year 2009 found that British children's average scores on the Raven's Progressive Matrices test rose by 14 IQ points from 1942 to 2008. Similar gains have been observed in many other countries in which IQ testing has long been widely used, including other Western European countries, Japan, and South Korea. There are numerous proposed explanations of the Flynn effect, as well as some skepticism about its implications. Similar improvements have been reported for semantic and episodic memory. Some research suggests that there may be an ongoing reversed Flynn effect, i.e. a decline in IQ scores, in Norway, Denmark, Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and German-speaking countries, a development which appears to have started in the 1990s, but in certain cases an apparent reversal is due to cultural changes making parts of intelligence tests obsolete. Meta-analyses indicate that overall, the Flynn effect continues either at the same rate or at a slower rate in developed countries.

development meta-analyses intelligence quotient

1. Origin of Term

The Flynn effect is named for James R. Flynn, who did much to document it and promote awareness of its implications. The term itself was coined by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve.[1][2][3] Although the general term for the phenomenon—referring to no researcher in particular—continues to be "secular rise in IQ scores", many textbooks on psychology and IQ testing have now followed the lead of Herrnstein and Murray in calling the phenomenon the Flynn effect.[4]

2. Rise in IQ

IQ tests are updated periodically. For example, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), originally developed in 1949, was updated in 1974, 1991, 2003, and again in 2014. The revised versions are standardized based on the performance of test-takers in standardization samples. A standard score of IQ 100 is defined as the median performance of the standardization sample. Thus one way to see changes in norms over time is to conduct a study in which the same test-takers take both an old and new version of the same test. Doing so confirms IQ gains over time. Some IQ tests, for example, tests used for military draftees in NATO countries in Europe, report raw scores, and those also confirm a trend of rising scores over time. The average rate of increase seems to be about three IQ points per decade in the United States, as scaled by the Wechsler tests. The increasing test performance over time appears on every major test, in every age range, at every ability level, and in every modern industrialized country, although not necessarily at the same rate as in the United States. The increase was continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the mid-1990s.[5] Though the effect is most associated with IQ increases, a similar effect has been found with increases in attention and of semantic and episodic memory.[6]

Ulric Neisser estimated that using the IQ values of 1997, the average IQ of the United States in 1932, according to the first Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales standardization sample, was 80. Neisser states that "Hardly any of them would have scored 'very superior', but nearly one-quarter would have appeared to be 'deficient.'" He also wrote that "Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial."[5]

Trahan et al. (2014) found that the effect was about 2.93 points per decade, based on both Stanford–Binet and Wechsler tests; they also found no evidence the effect was diminishing.[7] In contrast, Pietschnig and Voracek (2015) reported, in their meta-analysis of studies involving nearly 4 million participants, that the Flynn effect had decreased in recent decades. They also reported that the magnitude of the effect was different for different types of intelligence ("0.41, 0.30, 0.28, and 0.21 IQ points annually for fluid, spatial, full-scale, and crystallized IQ test performance, respectively"), and that the effect was stronger for adults than for children.[8]

Raven (2000) found that, as Flynn suggested, data interpreted as showing a decrease in many abilities with increasing age must be re-interpreted as showing that there has been a dramatic increase of these abilities with the date of birth. On many tests this occurs at all levels of ability.[9]

Some studies have found the gains of the Flynn effect to be particularly concentrated at the lower end of the distribution. Teasdale and Owen (1989), for example, found the effect primarily reduced the number of low-end scores, resulting in an increased number of moderately high scores, with no increase in very high scores.[10] In another study, two large samples of Spanish children were assessed with a 30-year gap. Comparison of the IQ distributions indicated that the mean IQ scores on the test had increased by 9.7 points (the Flynn effect), the gains were concentrated in the lower half of the distribution and negligible in the top half, and the gains gradually decreased as the IQ of the individuals increased.[11] Some studies have found a reverse Flynn effect with declining scores for those with high IQ.[8][12]

In 1987, Flynn took the position that the very large increase indicates that IQ tests do not measure intelligence but only a minor sort of "abstract problem-solving ability" with little practical significance. He argued that if IQ gains do reflect intelligence increases, there would have been consequent changes of our society that have not been observed (a presumed non-occurrence of a "cultural renaissance").[5] Flynn no longer endorses this view of intelligence and has since elaborated and refined his view of what rising IQ scores mean.[13]

2.1. Precursors to Flynn's Publications

Earlier investigators had discovered rises in raw IQ test scores in some study populations, but had not published general investigations of that issue in particular. Historian Daniel C. Calhoun cited earlier psychology literature on IQ score trends in his book The Intelligence of a People (1973).[14] R. L. Thorndike drew attention to rises in Stanford-Binet scores in a 1975 review of the history of intelligence testing.[15] Richard Lynn recorded an increase in Japanese IQ in 1982.[16]

2.2. Intelligence

There is debate about whether the rise in IQ scores also corresponds to a rise in general intelligence, or only a rise in special skills related to taking IQ tests. Because children attend school longer now and have become much more familiar with the testing of school-related material, one might expect the greatest gains to occur on such school content-related tests as vocabulary, arithmetic or general information. Just the opposite is the case: abilities such as these have experienced relatively small gains and even occasional decreases over the years. Meta-analytic findings indicate that Flynn effects occur for tests assessing both fluid and crystallized abilities. For example, Dutch conscripts gained 21 points during only 30 years, or 7 points per decade, between 1952 and 1982.[5] But this rise in IQ test scores is not wholly explained by an increase in general intelligence. Studies have shown that while test scores have improved over time, the improvement is not fully correlated with latent factors related to intelligence.[17] Rushton argues that the gains in IQ over time (the Lynn-Flynn effect) are unrelated to g.[18][19] Other researchers argue that the IQ gains described by the Flynn effect are due in part to increasing intelligence, and in part to increases in test-specific skills.[20][21][22] In parallel with the measured gains in IQ scores, long-term declines have been found for "mental speed, digit span backwards, the use of difficult words, and color acuity, all of which are related to intelligence".[23]

3. Proposed Explanations

3.1. Schooling and Test Familiarity

The duration of average schooling has increased steadily. One problem with this explanation is that if in the US comparing older and more recent subjects with similar educational levels, then the IQ gains appear almost undiminished in each such group considered individually.[5]

Many studies find that children who do not attend school score drastically lower on the tests than their regularly attending peers. During the 1960s, when some Virginia counties closed their public schools to avoid racial integration, compensatory private schooling was available only for Caucasian children. On average, the scores of African-American children who received no formal education during that period decreased at a rate of about six IQ points per year.[5]

Another explanation is an increased familiarity of the general population with tests and testing. For example, children who take the very same IQ test a second time usually gain five or six points. However, this seems to set an upper limit on the effects of test sophistication. One problem with this explanation and others related to schooling is that in the US, the groups with greater test familiarity show smaller IQ increases.[5]

Early intervention programs have shown mixed results. Some preschool (ages 3–4) intervention programs like "Head Start" do not produce lasting changes of IQ, although they may confer other benefits. The "Abecedarian Early Intervention Project", an all-day program that provided various forms of environmental enrichment to children from infancy onward, showed IQ gains that did not diminish over time. The IQ difference between the groups, although only five points, was still present at age 12. Not all such projects have been successful.[5] Also, such IQ gains can diminish until age 18.[24]

Citing a high correlation between rising literacy rates and gains in IQ, David Marks has argued that the Flynn effect is caused by changes in literacy rates.[25]

3.2. Generally More Stimulating Environment

Still another theory is that the general environment today is much more complex and stimulating. One of the most striking 20th-century changes in the human intellectual environment has come from the increase of exposure to many types of visual media. From pictures on the wall to movies to television to video games to computers, each successive generation has been exposed to richer optical displays than the one before and may have become more adept at visual analysis. This would explain why visual tests like the Raven's have shown the greatest increases. An increase only of particular forms of intelligence would explain why the Flynn effect has not caused a "cultural renaissance too great to be overlooked."[5]

In 2001, William Dickens and James Flynn presented a model for resolving several contradictory findings regarding IQ. They argue that the measure "heritability" includes both a direct effect of the genotype on IQ and also indirect effects such that the genotype changes the environment, thereby affecting IQ. That is, those with a greater IQ tend to seek stimulating environments that further increase IQ. These reciprocal effects result in gene environment correlation. The direct effect could initially have been very small, but feedback can create large differences in IQ. In their model, an environmental stimulus can have a very great effect on IQ, even for adults, but this effect also decays over time unless the stimulus continues (the model could be adapted to include possible factors, like nutrition during early childhood, that may cause permanent effects). The Flynn effect can be explained by a generally more stimulating environment for all people. The authors suggest that any program designed to increase IQ may produce long-term IQ gains if that program teaches children how to replicate the types of cognitively demanding experiences that produce IQ gains outside the program. To maximize lifetime IQ, the programs should also motivate them to continue searching for cognitively demanding experiences after they have left the program.[26][27]

Flynn in his 2007 book What Is Intelligence? further expanded on this theory. Environmental changes resulting from modernization—such as more intellectually demanding work, greater use of technology, and smaller families—have meant that a much larger proportion of people are more accustomed to manipulating abstract concepts such as hypotheses and categories than a century ago. Substantial portions of IQ tests deal with these abilities. Flynn gives, as an example, the question 'What do a dog and a rabbit have in common?' A modern respondent might say they are both mammals (an abstract, or a priori answer, which depends only on the meanings of the words dog and rabbit), whereas someone a century ago might have said that humans catch rabbits with dogs (a concrete, or a posteriori answer, which depended on what happened to be the case at that time).

3.3. Nutrition

Improved nutrition is another possible explanation. Today's average adult from an industrialized nation is taller than a comparable adult of a century ago. That increase of stature, likely the result of general improvements in nutrition and health, has been at a rate of more than a centimeter per decade. Available data suggest that these gains have been accompanied by analogous increases in head size, and by an increase in the average size of the brain.[5][28] This argument had been thought to suffer the difficulty that groups who tend to be of smaller overall body size (e.g. women, or people of Asian ancestry) do not have lower average IQs.[10]

A 2005 study presented data supporting the nutrition hypothesis, which predicts that gains will occur predominantly at the low end of the IQ distribution, where nutritional deprivation is probably most severe.[11] An alternative interpretation of skewed IQ gains could be that improved education has been particularly important for this group.[10] Richard Lynn makes the case for nutrition, arguing that cultural factors cannot typically explain the Flynn effect because its gains are observed even at infant and preschool levels, with rates of IQ test score increase about equal to those of school students and adults. Lynn states that "This rules out improvements in education, greater test sophistication, etc., and most of the other factors that have been proposed to explain the Flynn effect. He proposes that the most probable factor has been improvements in pre-natal and early post-natal nutrition."[29]

A century ago, nutritional deficiencies may have limited body and organ functionality, including skull volume. The first two years of life are a critical time for nutrition. The consequences of malnutrition can be irreversible and may include poor cognitive development, educability, and future economic productivity.[30] On the other hand, Flynn has pointed to 20-point gains on Dutch military (Raven's type) IQ tests between 1952, 1962, 1972, and 1982. He observes that the Dutch 18-year-olds of 1962 had a major nutritional handicap. They were either in the womb or were recently born, during the great Dutch famine of 1944—when German troops monopolized food and 18,000 people died of starvation.[31] Yet, concludes Flynn, "they do not show up even as a blip in the pattern of Dutch IQ gains. It is as if the famine had never occurred."[32][33] It appears that the effects of diet are gradual, taking effect over decades (affecting mother as well as the child) rather than a few months.

In support of the nutritional hypothesis, it is known that, in the United States, the average height before 1900 was about 10 cm (∼4 inches) shorter than it is today.[34] Possibly related to the Flynn effect is a similar change of skull size and shape during the last 150 years. Though the idea that brain size is unrelated to race and intelligence was popularized in the 1980s, studies continue to show significant correlations.[35] A Norwegian study found that height gains were strongly correlated with intelligence gains until the cessation of height gains in military conscript cohorts towards the end of the 1980s.[36] Both height and skull size increases probably result from a combination of phenotypic plasticity and genetic selection over this period.[37] With only five or six human generations in 150 years, time for natural selection has been very limited, suggesting that increased skeletal size resulting from changes in population phenotypes is more likely than recent genetic evolution.

It is well known that micronutrient deficiencies change the development of intelligence. For instance, one study has found that iodine deficiency causes a fall, on average, of 12 IQ points in China.[38]

Scientists James Feyrer, Dimitra Politi, and David N. Weil have found in the U.S. that the proliferation of iodized salt increased IQ by 15 points in some areas. Journalist Max Nisen has stated that with this type of salt becoming popular, that "the aggregate effect has been extremely positive."[39]

Daley et al. (2003) found a significant Flynn effect among children in rural Kenya, and concluded that nutrition was one of the hypothesized explanations that best explained their results (the others were parental literacy and family structure).[40]

3.4. Infectious Diseases

Eppig, Fincher, and Thornhill (2009) argue that "From an energetics standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks" and that "the Flynn effect may be caused in part by the decrease in the intensity of infectious diseases as nations develop." They suggest that improvements in gross domestic product (GDP), education, literacy, and nutrition may have an effect on IQ mainly through reducing the intensity of infectious diseases.[41]

Eppig, Fincher, and Thornhill (2011) in a similar study instead looking at different US states found that states with a higher prevalence of infectious diseases had lower average IQ. The effect remained after controlling for the effects of wealth and educational variation.[42]

Atheendar Venkataramani (2010) studied the effect of malaria on IQ in a sample of Mexicans. Malaria eradication during the birth year was associated with increases in IQ. It also increased the probability of employment in a skilled occupation. The author suggests that this may be one explanation for the Flynn effect and that this may be an important explanation for the link between national malaria burden and economic development.[43] A literature review of 44 papers states that cognitive abilities and school performance were shown to be impaired in sub-groups of patients (with either cerebral malaria or uncomplicated malaria) when compared with healthy controls. Studies comparing cognitive functions before and after treatment for acute malarial illness continued to show significantly impaired school performance and cognitive abilities even after recovery. Malaria prophylaxis was shown to improve cognitive function and school performance in clinical trials when compared to placebo groups.[44]

3.5. Heterosis

Heterosis, or hybrid vigor associated with historical reductions of the levels of inbreeding, has been proposed by Michael Mingroni as an alternative explanation of the Flynn effect. However, James Flynn has pointed out that even if everyone mated with a sibling in 1900, subsequent increases in heterosis would not be a sufficient explanation of the observed IQ gains.[45]

4. Possible End of Progression

Mean standing height and mean GA (both in z scores units+5) by year of testing, from Sundet et al. 2004 (figure 3).

Jon Martin Sundet and colleagues (2004) examined scores on intelligence tests given to Norway conscripts between the 1950s and 2002. They found that the increase of scores of general intelligence stopped after the mid-1990s and declined in numerical reasoning sub-tests.[36]

Teasdale and Owen (2005) examined the results of IQ tests given to Denmark male conscripts. Between 1959 and 1979 the gains were 3 points per decade. Between 1979 and 1989 the increase approached 2 IQ points. Between 1989 and 1998 the gain was about 1.3 points. Between 1998 and 2004 IQ declined by about the same amount as it gained between 1989 and 1998. They speculate that "a contributing factor in this recent fall could be a simultaneous decline in proportions of students entering 3-year advanced-level school programs for 16–18-year-olds."[46] The same authors in a more comprehensive 2008 study, again on Danish male conscripts, found that there was a 1.5-point increase between 1988 and 1998, but a 1.5-point decrease between 1998 and 2003/2004. A possible contributing factor to the more recent decline may be the changes in the Danish educational system. Another may be the rising proportion of immigrants or their immediate descendants in Denmark. This is supported by data on Danish draftees where first or second-generation immigrants with Danish nationality score below average.[47]

In Australia, the IQ of 6–12 year olds as measured by the Colored Progressive Matrices has shown no increase from 1975–2003.[48]

In the United Kingdom, a study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the results, the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. However, children aged between five and 10 saw their IQs increase by up to half a point a year over the three decades. Flynn argues that the abnormal drop in British teenage IQ could be due to youth culture having "stagnated" or even dumbed down. He also states that the youth culture is more oriented towards computer games than towards reading and holding conversations. Researcher Richard House, commenting on the study, also mentions the computer culture diminishing reading books as well as a tendency towards teaching to the test.[49][50]

Stefansson et al. (2017) argue for a decline in polygenic scores pertaining to educational attainment in Icelandic individuals born from 1910 to 1990. They point out that the effect observed is extremely negligible, however, and may only be of concern if the trend is assumed to be larger in genomic effect and continues across centuries.[51]

Bratsberg & Rogeberg (2018) present evidence that the Flynn effect in Norway has reversed, and that both the original rise in mean IQ scores and their subsequent decline was caused by environmental factors. They conclude that environmental factors explain all or almost all of the decline, and the hypothesized declines in genotypic IQ is negligible, although they "cannot rule out the theoretical possibility of negative selection on a genetic component that is masked when assessed using environmentally influenced measures", not being able to rule out the decline posited by Stefansson et al.[52]

One possible explanation of a worldwide decline in intelligence, suggested by the World Health Organization and the Forum of International Respiratory Societies' Environmental Committee, is an increase in air pollution, which now affects over 90% of the world's population.[53][54]

5. IQ Group Differences

If the Flynn effect has ended in developed nations but continues in less developed ones, this would tend to diminish national differences in IQ scores.[47]

Also, if the Flynn effect has ended for the majority in developed nations, it may still continue for minorities, especially for groups like immigrants where many may have received poor nutrition during early childhood or have had other disadvantages. A study in the Netherlands found that children of non-Western immigrants had improvements for g, educational achievements, and work proficiency compared to their parents, although there were still remaining differences compared to ethnic Dutch.[21]

In the United States, the IQ gap between black and white people was gradually closing over the last decades of the 20th century, as black test-takers increased their average scores relative to white test-takers. For instance, Vincent reported in 1991 that the black–white IQ gap was decreasing among children, but that it was remaining constant among adults.[55] Similarly, a 2006 study by Dickens and Flynn estimated that the difference between mean scores of black people and white people closed by about 5 or 6 IQ points between 1972 and 2002,[56] a reduction of about one-third. In the same period, the educational achievement disparity also diminished.[57] Reviews by Flynn and Dickens,[58] Mackintosh,[59] and Nisbett et al. [60][61] all concluded that the gradual closing of the gap was a real phenomenon.

Flynn has commented that he never claimed that the Flynn effect has the same causes as the black-white gap, but that it shows that environmental factors can create IQ differences of a magnitude similar to the gap.[62] Research that has examined whether g factor and IQ gains from the Flynn effect are related have found there is a negative correlation between the two, which may indicate that group differences and the Flynn effect are possibly due to differing causes.[63]

The Flynn effect has also been part of the discussions regarding Spearman's hypothesis, which states that differences in the g factor are the major source of differences between blacks and whites observed in many studies of race and intelligence.[64]


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