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IQ changes – Is the Kardashian effect overwelming the Flynn Effect?

  • August 30th, 2014

Our world famous expert on IQ testing, Prof Jim Flynn of Otago University, discovered that people in rich industrialised societies score much more highly in intelligence tests than their great grandparents.

The revealed increased capacity for abstract reasoning is called the Flynn Effect. As the wikipedia description shows, it has generated enormous interest, and lots of research. Prof Flynn gets worldwide requests to explain and discuss it.

You'd think New Zealand would accordingly be a centre of IQ research. But many of us have scarcely heard of it.

And now  the Daily Mail reports research suggesting a material reversal of the trend in parts of the rich world. It suggests the IQs of people in the UK and Denmark have declined by 1.5 points since 1998. Prof Flynn has been involved in the resulting intellectual discussion. Despite the news that Australia is among the countries that seem to be dumbing down a quick search turned up no New Zealand originated public attention to this finding.

I'm stunned that it has not been brought into public policy discussion here. It seems ripe for people to call on it to serve their favourite theories or prejudices on education, for example, or immigration. The comments on the Daily Mail report  wearyingly reflect the left/right toxicity of Anglo-sphere politics (though I loved the comment reflected in the heading for this post).

I've been interested since meeting Jim Flynn in the mid 90's, because he was convinced (and convincing) about the plasticity of the brain. He emphasized the significance of the switch from farming to industrial work, and increasing concentration on reading. Early experience matters. How you prioritise your thinking time, the skills you practice, really matter. He was ahead of his time. Epigenetics is turning upside down many assumptions about how we inherit. Nature vs nurture arguments are more complex  than we ever thought. But 20 years ago Jim was suggesting that if your primary learning avoids stretch, or most of your reading or watching is passive, on undemanding trash, don't be surprised if your brain never fully develops its reasoning potential. I'm not aware of any Prof Flynn judgment about what category the Kardashians fit.

Subsequent research highlights how acquiring habits of perserverance in particular can vitally improve capacity in many spheres. Some of what my generation scorned as 'anal' now looks more useful, being practice in deferring gratification for greater future gain.

I suspect that we'll eventually see proof that some of the disturbing (and undiscussable) ethnic differences in reported IQ levels may  reflect cultural approaches to learning and intellectual training generally. Cultures and classes that won't train their children in perseverance and gratification deferral may be doomed to serve those who do. If  tested intelligence quotients change substantially from generation to generation according to how they spend their learning time, children whose parents and teachers fail to stretch them to keep up intellectually mght be more likely to inherit the wrong end of increasing inequality of wealth and income.  Genes may be blamed, or 'disadvantage' or 'discrimination' when it is just that old villain – well intentioned excuses for refusing to judge and change or discard 'cultures' that deserve fail marks.

The news that IQ averages may be falling reminds me of one of the serious oddities resulting from the US Supreme Court's attempts to nibble away at the death penalty in the face of democratic majority support. Failing to find constitutional authority to abolish it, in the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that an IQ of less than 70 can indicate mental retardation so profound that effectively the criminal should not be held fully responsible for his actions. Execution then becomes unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In a recent case a man of Mexican heritage was executed despite having an IQ of 62, because a lower court "accepted the prosecution’s rather astonishing argument that although Hernandez’s IQ was low compared to “American norms,” when “scaled to Mexican norms” it should be adjusted upward. When assessed according to his “cultural group”, they argued, his results should be closer to 70, a level just outside the definition of mental retardation."

The article refers to another case where it was accepted that an Hispanic average IQ  7.5% lower than Caucasian justifies a corresponding adjustment  to assess whether an Hispanic defendant is still within the normal functioning range. But the argument goes the other way for some Asians. It has apparently been seriously argued that US murderers of Asian heritage with IQs higher than the 'cut-off' should still benefit from it, because in relation to their peers they would be treated as retarded at a much higher level of cognitive ability.
But a quick review of the huge literature generated by Jim Flynn's finding nearly 40 years ago, shows that on current tests, over 100 years ago, the average IQ of the forebears of  the 'Caucasian' norm, would have been around 70 – i.e. the level now treated by the Supreme Court as 'retarded'.

The Courts should get well off the shaky ground of racism, however well meant, and go back to a simple rule for this complex world – treat all men [and women] equally, even if they are not.

Deeming things for the sake of practicality is not new to the law. What else, for example, is the rule that we are all deemed to know the law? With every passing day our multiple sources of law spew out more and more law. Even lawyers will actually know only a fraction of the law we are all deemed to know.


  • les
  • September 1st, 2014
  • 11:35 am

what are the practical benefits to society of a form of measuring I.Q?

  • Roger Strong
  • September 5th, 2014
  • 3:13 pm

The problem is the science around IQ tests and results is very hazy to say the least. the test just measures how well an individual do in a test and then gives a number. As I understand it, it is of little practical importance and generally interests academics more than anyone else. The margin of error is also pretty large.

  • Robert
  • September 14th, 2014
  • 2:59 pm

In terms of Kim Karadishian and her sisters, I’ve often wondered how LA class, can regress so fast. In terms of Paris Hilton, it is only partly true, as I see Paris as socially useful in giving the finger to the value of Modern tertiary education for girls. Why bother, why not just party, drink and drug. Six months at Choate and four years at the most exclusive NY Catholic School are surely all you need. Fourth generation wealth see’s no need to work of course.

  • Robert Miles
  • September 15th, 2014
  • 11:22 am

In late twentieth century in NZ and the western world IQ tests played a key role in streaming in secondary education and the military. An IQ of 110 indicated the top 25% of the general range and 130 top 3 percent and those generally judged gifted. An IQ of about 110 was about the point people had a good chance of achieving University Entrance before 1986, getting into a UK grammar school or being selected as a military officer. A few points lower say 107/108 they had little chance of achieving any of those status symbols or entry levels. Neither is IQ a purely statistical construct- an IQ of 110 pretty accurately reflected the minimmum level people were able to fully verbally differentiate or might be able to do calculus.
It seems to me a good IQ test for school selection purposes would include half a dozen questions specifically to determine whether a person was a 109/110/111 in a sort of interogations. Other IQ ceiling points would be critical for certain abilities. Verbal 116 is called very high IQ and indicates suitability for foreign languanges and only the top one percent are suitable for advanced physics although there the required abilities are more verbal than mathematical, strangely.
In terms of accuracy, in the best tests repeat efforts at the same or similar tests will increase scores somewhat, and inevitabily with students having more prior knowledge testing now is unlikely to be as accurate, but that does not discredit the general theory of hour class intelligence distribution or the idea that in a general European male population 25% are intelligent and 75% ordinary. Real levels of intelligence are whether you see the answer accurately in your mind rather than whether you record or spell the answers accurately and most tests depend on a fair degree of assumed prior knowledge, alphabet, basic maths, general knowledge, ie names of great painters and composers and ability to synthisise and manipulate them.

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