Evolving Cognitive Skills: The Flynn Effect

The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day. 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.—Wikipedia

IQ Curve
IQ Curve

Based on the results of new test-takers on standard IQ tests James Flynn (see Ted talk, 2013) has postulated that we are getting cognitively more intelligent with time. What is interesting are the ways in which our cognitive skills seem to be evolving.

Flynn cites three main evolving cognitive skills:

  1. the ability to classify
  2. the use of abstraction shaped by logic
  3. taking the hypothetical seriously

These are illustrated by examples. In the first case, a man of a previous generation is asked, “What do a crow and a fish have in common?” The man sees nothing in common: one flies, one swims, and so on. When asked if the crow and the fish are not both animals, the man says, “no, one is a fish and one is a crow”. He sees only how the creatures exist in his own concrete world and cannot see the common features that would enable their classification as animals.

An inability to use abstraction governed by logic is illustrated in this example. A man is told, “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany. Are there any camels in Hamburg?” The man speculates that there might be, if the city is large enough. He is incapable of following the logic of the verbal abstraction.

In the third case a subject is told, “At the North Pole there is always snow. Wherever there is always snow the bears are always white. What color are the bears at the North Pole?” The subject replied that one would have to go and verify. He, himself, had only ever seen brown bears. He wondered why anyone would waste time on such a problem. As a further example of a lack of respect for the hypothetical he describes the reaction of his racially-biased parents to the question, “How would you feel if you woke up black and were treated as inferior?” The response was laughter and, “When was the last time someone went to bed and woke up black?”. No respect for the hypothetical.

These three cognitive skills, the ability to classify, the use of abstraction shaped by logic, and taking the hypothetical seriously appear to be the major factors which differentiate our cognitive abilities from those of our grandparents. These same skills are essential to doing science and, as Flynn maintains, engaging in moral argument.

He also notes that now fully a third of us are engaged in cognitively rich professions and that most professions are undergoing upgrade to become more and more demanding of the cognitive skills described above.

Related: PISA: New Skills Measured in International Student Test


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