IQs rise, but are we brighter?

Times Staff Writer

James R. Flynn, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Otaga in New Zealand, discovered two decades ago that IQ test scores were steadily rising in the developed world despite failing schools and stagnant standardized test scores -- a phenomenon called the “Flynn effect.” During a recent visit to UCLA, Flynn talked about the conundrum, which is the subject of his new book, “What Is Intelligence?”

Are children today smarter than their parents?

I don’t think they are smarter if by that you mean they have better brains. They think better on their feet; they can solve problems on the spot without being told what to do; they are better at working with shapes, thanks in part to the Internet and the computer. But they have no larger vocabularies and are no better at arithmetic.

So why are their IQs higher than those of their parents and grandparents?

The people who invented IQ tests saw the world through scientific spectacles. They were interested in logical reasoning. But generations ago people were very utilitarian. If you asked a person in 1900 what a dog and rabbit had in common, they would say you could use a dog to hunt rabbits. Today you would say they both are mammals. That is shorthand for a lot of insight. That may seem trivial, but classifying the world is prerequisite to understanding it scientifically.


You are referring to the portion of the IQ test that measures the ability to determine similarities?

Yes. And if you say “Mammals,” you get two points, and if you say “Dogs hunt rabbits,” you get none. The score on this portion of the test has gone up 24 points in America since 1947.

Do you think there is something wrong with the way IQ is assessed?

The people who designed the test thought they were measuring intelligence, but they were actually measuring a mix of intelligence and a way of looking at the world. They looked at the world through scientific spectacles, and it took a long time for the average person to slowly take on that perspective.

What caused scientific thinking to go mainstream?

It permeates everything. I think some events were people moving into managerial and technical work and needing to think on their feet; not being so exhausted from manual labor so that you can be intellectually challenged in your leisure, and play chess or bridge. A reduction in family size allowed parents to spend more time with their children.

It seems odd that IQ scores are up while scores on other standardized tests are not.

If you look at the PSAT, which is given to juniors in high school, the scores are stable and are not going up with IQ. The PSAT has lagged IQ because it tests reading and general arithmetic.

Wouldn’t we be better off if children were better at reading and math?

Yes, we would. But you have to teach for that. You have to hire people who can actually teach math. It’s not a cheap fix. You have to make it a national priority. The invention of computer games has made thinking spatially and reasoning logically an automatic social priority. We have never made pouring money into schools to make sure kids were better educated a national priority.


What good might come from the skills driving IQ gains?

Better executive performance -- solving business problems on your feet rather than running to the boss for help, or trying to remember what you did the last time you were in an analogous situation.

What’s your IQ?

I’ve never been told the score. I know it’s high because when I was in grade school the teachers approached my parents and told them I was very bright and should go to college.

You were born and raised in the United States, but in 1963 you went to live in New Zealand. Why?

The American Cold War was very oppressive, and I had gotten bounced from a couple academic posts. McCarthyism was winding down and I was a democratic socialist, which was very taboo. I was tired of getting fired and wanted a somewhat less hysterical atmosphere. I was a political science professor, and that gave me a strong interest in race and group differences and things like that, and that led to my interest in IQ.

Do you think IQ scores will continue to rise?

I think the gains will slow down in the developed world because the things that fueled them are running out of gas. For example, most of us have on scientific spectacles now. IQ gains have stopped in Scandinavia. America and Britain are next. It may take another 10 to 15 years.