What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect

by on September 14, 2007 at 6:03 am in Science | Permalink

That is the new book by James R. Flynn.  He suggests the following:

Today we have no difficulty freeing logic from concrete referents and reasoning about purely hypothetical situations.  People were not always thus.

In other words, people in earlier times really were stupider when it came to abstract thought, but this was primarily for environmental reasons.  These people also had more daily, practical skills, again for reasons of practice.  We in contrast receive daily workouts with hypotheticals, rapidly moving images, and spatial reasoning.  So Flynn is suggesting that IQ isn’t more multi-dimensional than it may seem.  The Flynn Effect gains are in fact concentrated in the most spatial and abstract versions of IQ tests.

Flynn summarizes the "Dickens-Flynn" model, through which environment and IQ interact in multiplicative fashion.  Smart people seek out environments which make them even smarter, and this helps reconcile the cross-sectional IQ data (adoption doesn’t change IQ so much) with the time series of increasingly higher IQ scores (environments are changing for everybody).  This reconciliation was fuzzy to me, but I took Flynn to be claiming that separated identical twins will reimpose common environmental forces on themselves, thus keeping their IQs in relatively close long-run synch.  I still don’t understand what kind of test (might it contrast permanent vs. temporary environmental shocks?) might falsify the Dickens-Flynn model.

Flynn also argues that the Chinese in America attained high levels of achievement before
above-average IQs.

This book doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, and it could have been written in a more organized fashion.  Still it is one of the more interesting volumes of the year.

Addendum: I have long thought that the Germanic "Hausmusik" tradition was responsible for producing so many great composers in one relatively short period of time.  Flynn’s book offers (unintended) hints about why it is so hard to reproduce the cultural blossomings of times past, and also why future creations will seem baffling to the old fogies.

1 joan September 14, 2007 at 7:37 am

Anyone who takes their view of the interaction of IQ and society from the “Bell Curve” should take note of the comment on the book by Charles Murray

“This book is a gold mine of pointers to interesting work, much of which was new to me.†

2 Anonymous September 14, 2007 at 7:58 am

I have a very good friend, Chinese, who has a doctorate in information management, who told me roughly this: “You Americans always think that the Chinese are so smart. They are stupid! The smart ones leave!”

I imagine that this would distort the data a bit.

3 Katie September 14, 2007 at 10:12 am

My parents, as well as the parents of basically all of my Chinese American friends, came to the US for graduate school, had kids, and ended up staying here. I don’t know that my social circle represents an accurate cross sectino of teh Chinese American population, but I’m sure that it does not represent an accurate representation of the Chinese one.

4 John El September 14, 2007 at 11:13 am

I haven’t read the book, but I’m surprised there isn’t any mention of nutrition in there. Better nutrition at a young age correlates pretty strongly with a persons height, health and intelligence. Humans have gotten a few inches taller in the past few hundred years mostly due to nutrition gains, I think it’s fair to say it’s made us smarter too.

5 karl smith September 14, 2007 at 12:48 pm

The position that I take is that it may be the “genetic” component of IQ is environment selection. Smarter people are people who have a preference for thing which make you smarter. Now ala Judith Harris, I am taking an extreme position to make the case. Perhaps, deep down I think their may be a purely enzymatic component but for now I argue that smart people have more pleasure receptors for intellectually stimulating activities.

This explains for example why adoptive parent IQ has an effect on young children but not older ones. Young children have less control over the stimulus they receive. It also explains dumb jock/babe syndrome.

Even though attractive people tend to have higher IQs as adults they seem less intelligent as students because the opportunity cost of their mental time is higher. There are just some activities that stimulant the pleasure centers more intensely than crossword puzzles, no matter who you are.

6 Steve Sailer September 14, 2007 at 6:54 pm

An excerpt from my review:

Flynn’s WISC table points out that the surprising success of IQ tests—they are now 102 years old and appear to be as valid as they ever were since they matured between World War I and World War II—stems from the inventors of IQ testing anticipating which way the world would move.

Flynn told me in an email last week: “I often say to audiences that right from the start the framers of IQ tests themselves looked at the world through scientific spectacles and therefore anticipated the spread of such through the general population.”

I also suspect that standardized tests have remained useful predictors of competence in part because the world, in going electronic, has gotten more standardized. Programming your cell phone is a rather like answering questions on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices IQ test: it’s purely logical and there’s only one way to do it.

In contrast, early in the 20th Century, people dealt more with farm animals, crops, raw materials like wood, and simple machinery. A Model T could be jerry-rigged in various ways to get it back on the road. But a DVD-recorder, like an IQ test question, is a black box that can only be programmed in a prescribed fashion.

So, it’s by no means clear that people are getting smarter overall. But they do seem to be getting smarter at the things IQ tests measure †¦ which have proven to be quite important in the modern world.

The Flynn Effect shows up less in the general factor of intelligence, the g factor, which accounts for roughly half of individual differences in intelligence. This suggests that if people are getting better at some tasks, they might also be getting worse at others.

And indeed, some non-IQ tests suggest that people are becoming less competent at dealing with old-fashioned physical objects in the real world rather than with images on glowing screens. One study of Piagetian skills found that British children had lost the equivalent of 12 points from 1975 to 2003. Richard Tomkins reported in the Financial Times:

“The results achieved by 11-year-olds had fallen to the level that children aged eight to nine had been achieving 30 years ago †¦ A sample question involved pouring all the water from a tall, thin beaker into a short, fat one, refilling the tall, thin beaker to the same level and asking which contained the greater volume of water.”[Are children getting cleverer? August 12, 2006]

Similarly, the Vineland test of “daily living skills” has found a decline in basic ability to cope.

I also suspect that people may be getting mentally quicker, but not more profound.


7 Justin September 14, 2007 at 10:16 pm

I can’t read that Flynn quotation in any way that makes it plausible. At best, it seems to include a conflation of hypotheticals and abstract thought (given your gloss). Perhaps there’s missing context.

If not, the assertion is just plain false. The ability to reason about hypotheticals starts very early, with pretend play in children, which is almost certainly an innate feature of the human mind.

This facility actually has little to do with abstract thought. Even those of us who have or are working towards PhDs do not primarily understand hypotheticals by means of abstract thought.

8 Ray G September 16, 2007 at 12:53 am

On the questions of IQ, heredity, et cetera.

A certain man was born out of wedlock to a woman who would eventually die in an asylum. The father he never knew was millionaire businessman known for being an exceptionally intelligent man, even among his other successful peers. Fortunately for this certain man, he took after his father to a T.

This man’s environment dictated, at best, a life in a factory. Most odds takers though would have betted on a life of crime for him. He eventually retired as one of the most powerful men in the city (unofficially powerful, but legally at least).

His children were hellions with no direction in life, but they enjoyed a much better environment than their father. These wild eyed children also took after the never-known grandfather to a T, inheriting the stellar IQ as well.

Half way through their 20s, these two mysteriously went from party like rock stars to wannabe scholars. They never finished college due to their delayed entry into responsible adulthood (never being a relative term) but now their own children are receiving direction that they never received; they are the “gifted† children, and their homes are cultures centering on education, delayed gratification, and other related traits.

Moral of the story being that genetics eventually overcame environment, though of course it wasn’t overnight. Within three generations the descendants were back to the point that would normally be expected of the heirs to our philandering businessman in the beginning of this little tale.

Studies and anecdote alike paint the same familiar pattern whether it’s the illegitimate children of the high IQ or the adopted children of crack addicts.

It seems an objective view would be to see why this is, and not spend so much time trying to explain away the obvious. I’m not dismissing the efforts at discerning between correlation and causality, but only pointing out that there is an obvious agenda in this area of study that has little to do with truth.

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