Are We All Getting Smarter?

For several years now, psychologists have been trying to decide what to make of the discovery by a scholar in New Zealand that people all over the world are getting higher scores on IQ tests

The discovery is generally known as the "Flynn effect," after James R. Flynn, an American-born political scientist who teaches at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Although Flynn now has an international reputation based on the discovery, it was -- at least in the beginning -- an accident.

He had been engaged in a long-running academic battle with Arthur R. Jensen of the University of California at Berkeley and other proponents of the idea that blacks are genetically inferior in intelligence to whites.

Searching for evidence to refute this, he made a study of U.S. military intelligence tests and found that the scores of black recruits had improved markedly from the 1920s to the 1950s. He anticipated that his opponents would dismiss this as simply the result of improved education among the later groups of recruits, and decided to investigate the long-term results of people who had been given other IQ tests such as the widely-used Stanford Binet and Wechsler series.

He found to his amazement that their test scores had been improving also: on the average, about 9 points per generation.

Since that finding could also be dismissed as a reflection of educational factors, Flynn proceeded to study the long-term results that had been obtained in a number of different countries from a test called Raven Progressive Matrices, which uses patterns instead of numbers or words, and from other tests that seek to measure problem-solving abilities without a cultural or educational bias.

He eventually obtained data from over 20 countries and found that the results were even more striking -- IQs growing from 5 to 25 points in a single generation, on the average about 15 points.

Many other investigators have checked Flynn's findings, and most psychologists agree that his numbers are accurate.

There is no comparable agreement about what they mean.

Psychologists aren't prepared to say that people are simply getting smarter, and most experts -- including Flynn -- prefer to say cautiously that the findings measure something "correlated to intelligence."

Many explanations for the increase have been offered: better nutrition, of course; better parenting, better schools, maybe the cumulative effects of exposure to the information-rich environment created by television and other communications media.

Outside the world of psychology and the bafflement about IQ scores, at least one well-known observer of recent global events claims that there is plenty of evidence that people are in fact behaving more intelligently. James Rosenau of George Washington University has written extensively about what he calls a worldwide "skill revolution" in which individuals are acting more effectively:

"Their scenarios have become lengthier and more elaborate. Their judgments have become sharper and more incisive. Their imaginations have become more wide-ranging and less inhibited."

Rosenau doesn't think at all that this upheaval of personal energies simply means that everything gets peacefully worked out -- his major work is entitled "Turbulence in World Politics."

But he does believe it is an essentially healthy development and an important piece of the larger changes that are underway -- and also something that seems to get left out of most of the arguments about what's going on in the world.

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