Human Intelligence

What is the Flynn effect?
Answered by Ian O'Neill and Discovery Channel
  • Ian O'Neill

    Ian O'Neill

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Ian O'Neill Space Producer, Discovery News

    The "Flynn Effect" is a phenomenon that describes the increase in average IQ scores worldwide. The 1994 study carried out by New Zealander James R. Flynn found that over the last 60 years, the IQ scores had risen for as long as IQ data was available in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Denmark, East Germany, France,  Israel, Japan,  Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United States of America, and West Germany. Although the Flynn Effect has been studied and characterized, there has yet to be an explanation for why intelligence has increased. Levels of education, nutrition and financial considerations have all been considered, but there is no indication that any external influence is the cause. All nations studied by Flynn saw a steady 5-20 point rise in IQ generation after generation. Since Flynn's landmark realization, follow-up studies have confirmed there is a 3 point rise average in IQ points worldwide.

    The Flynn Effect has been continuous and approximately linear for the United States, but the phenomenon may have stopped in some developed nations, potentially meaning some nations with lower average IQs will catch up, reducing differences in worldwide IQ score averages.

    man with beard doing calculations
    (CHIP EAST/Reuters/Corbis)

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  2. In the 1980s, scholar James R. Flynn published research noting that IQ scores increase from generation to generation in every country that uses the test. Children have higher scores -- between 5 and 25 points higher -- than their parents. This observation has become known as the Flynn effect, and while researchers agree that it happens, they don't know why it happens.

    Possible explanations include better nutrition, improved educational systems and more sophisticated knowledge about how to take tests. Some researchers have even argued that video games and television increase areas of the brain related to visual and spatial intelligence, which would account for why a technology-rich generation would score better. For some people, though, Flynn's effect just calls into question the usefulness and validity of IQ tests. On other indicators of intelligence and success, younger generations fare no better than older ones, so it may be just a fluke of what this particular test measures.

    Still, standardized tests that schools administer to students have shown that scores have not risen in academic subjects such as vocabulary and arithmetic, but scores that measure "general intelligence," such as abstract reasoning and ability to infer logic, have risen [source: Neuroanthropology]. This would imply that there is nothing wrong with IQ testing, but that people have become more skilled at the kinds of hypothetical, logical reasoning we need in today's society.

    Cognitive scientist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph. D., says the reason may be a result of the "social multiplier" effect [source: Kaufman]. Those skills or attributes deemed most important tend to get emphasized -- that means people refine them and they're stronger in the next generation. In other words, environmental factors influence average IQs of populations. This also supports some of the debate regarding the role of nurture (along with nature, or genetics) in forming intelligence and other human characteristics.

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