Nearly three decades ago, work by James R. Flynn revealed that average IQ scores in developed countries were rising at a stunning pace, of the order of 0.3 points per year or more. Later work showed similar explosive gains in developing countries and that the rise (now dubbed ‘the Flynn effect’) is still continuing. How did he find this? Recall that although IQ tests themselves have changed over time, each revision requires the IQ scores to be normed to always have an average value of 100. So does someone who scores 100 today have the same IQ of someone who scored 100 say fifty years ago, since they took different tests? Flynn found that if you give people today old IQ tests, their scores rose steadily the older the tests, suggesting that IQ tests have got harder over time. (James R. Flynn, Are We Getting Smarter?, 2012)
It seems highly implausible that biologically-based raw intelligence could explain this rise. Evolution just does not work that fast. So what could be the explanation? One possibility is that over time education has become more widespread. More people are going to school for longer periods and this may result in more of them learning the kinds of things that help them do well on IQ tests. But a more important reason may be that over time, people have increased their ability to think in terms of abstract quantities and relationships rather than in concrete forms, not just because they have more schooling but because the emphasis of the education they receive has changed.
For example, if you ask the question of what dogs and rabbits have in common, people nowadays would answer that they are both mammals, rather than that they both get involved in chases, with dogs pursuing rabbits. The former answer would be deemed correct while the latter would be marked wrong. But the practice of imputing abstract properties to concrete objects and then using those as points of analysis was not that widespread in the past and is now the product of an increasingly science-based education. Flynn says that while we now commonly use such ‘scientific spectacles’ in answering questions, in earlier times and in other communities, ‘utilitarian spectacles’ were more used.
He gives the account of researcher A. R. Luria who published transcripts of interviews with rural Russian people in the 1920s that illustrate the difference.
Q: What do a fish and a crow have in common?
A: A fish – it lives in water. A crow flies. If the fish just lies on top of the water, the crow could peck at it. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can’t eat a crow.
Q: Could you use one word for them both?
A: If you call them “animals,” that wouldn’t be right. A fish isn’t an animal and a crow isn’t either. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can’t eat a bird. A person can eat a fish but not a crow.
Commenter jpmeyer gave another example (maybe also from Luria) in response to an earlier post that shows how the ‘correct’ answer depends on whether one is wearing scientific or utilitarian spectacles.
I wish I could remember where I read this, but I remember reading that one of the reasons why people in places like Sub-Saharan Africa get horrible scores on IQ tests is because the test will have a question like “Which of these animals is not like the others: Cow, Chicken, Pig, and Dog”. The answer you’re supposed to give is “chicken” because it’s a bird and the other three are mammals, while they would answer “dog” because the other three are animals that they farm for meat.
Here is another interview from Luria that demonstrates how logical thinking has also become more abstract over time, with increased ability to think in terms of hypotheticals.
Q: There are no camels in Germany; the city of B is in Germany; are there camels there or not?
A: I don’t know, I have never seen German villages. If B is a large city, there should be camels there.
Q: But what if there aren’t any in all of Germany?
A: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.
Because syllogistic reasoning is almost second nature to us today, the rural Russian seems particularly obtuse in not being able to answer ‘correctly’. But that is because we are taught to wear ‘scientific spectacles’ from an early age. Hence we can easily separate logic from concrete facts and recognize that ‘camels’ and ‘Germany’ and ‘city B’ are just symbols that have no significance and could be replaced with other symbols without loss of meaning. But this way of thinking was not so universal even a century ago. Modern IQ tests like the Ravens and Wechler use symbolic reasoning largely or even exclusively and so favor those who are familiar with manipulating them.
Flynn describes the frustration that he and his brother had in trying to change their father’s reactionary views on race in order to get him to oppose discrimination. They tried appealing to his sense of empathy by asking him, “But what if your skin turned black?” His father (who was born in 1885) was incredulous that they would make such an argument, saying “That is the dumbest thing you have ever said – whom do you know whose skin has ever turned black?” Flynn says that he never encounters any modern racist who would argue that way. We all know now to take seriously the premises of hypotheticals, however absurd, as a basis for discussion.
Another reason for an increased ability to think in the abstract using symbols and hypotheticals is that our lives in general have become more complex and require more symbolic and abstract thinking even in everyday lives. Flynn points out that even when it comes to popular culture like TV shows, nowadays they routinely feature fairly complex multiple interweaving story lines even in sit-coms, unlike the simpler and more linear ones that were the norm even as late as the 1970s. Our work and leisure activities and the technology we use today all require us to manipulate symbols and use abstract reasoning to a far greater degree than people in the past or even people now who live in different cultures.
While all these can explain why IQ scores can rise rapidly over a short time period without a corresponding increase in intelligence, they can also explain why IQ scores can differ between nations and cultures and linguistic groups without corresponding differences in intelligence. Hence we should be highly skeptical of policy decisions based on assertions about the immutability of IQ scores or the differences in average scores between groups.