04 August 2011

Now, a "Flynn Effect" for Smart People

There are numerous proposed explanations of the Flynn effect, as well as some skepticism about its implications. Similar improvements have been reported for other cognitions such as semantic and episodic memory.[3] Recent research suggests that the Flynn effect may have ended in at least a few developed nations, possibly allowing national differences in IQ scores[4] to diminish if the Flynn effect continues in nations with lower average national IQs _FlynnEffect_Wikipedia

A brand new study, “The Flynn Effect Puzzle,” currently in press at Intelligence, and led by Jonathan Wai at Duke University, has found an interesting way to assess the right tail of the distribution. By looking at approximately 1.7 million scores of 7th grade students between 1981 and 2000 on the SAT and ACT, as well as scores of 5th and 6th grade students on the EXPLORE test, the psychologists were able to investigate the extent to which the Flynn effect exists in the right tail of the bell curve. The results were clear:

The effect was found in the top 5% at a rate similar to the general distribution, providing evidence for the first time that the entire curve is likely increasing at a constant rate. The effect was also found for females as well as males, appears to still be continuing, is primarily concentrated on the mathematics subtests of the SAT, ACT, and EXPLORE, and operates similarly for both 5th and 6th as well as 7th graders in the right tail.
Jonah Lehrer, author of the Wired post linked above, tries to explain why the Flynn Effect might work at the smart end of the curve, but comes up rather empty.

Forbes blogger Alex Knapp comments on Lehrer's inability to explain these findings:
As far as I’ve been able to tell, standardized test use in schools has increased since the 1960s and that use continues to grow apace. I’d suggest that as standardized tests are used more in schools, students get better at grappling with the critical thinking aspect of those tests. Therefore, they perform better, thus increasing the scores over time as more and more students take more and more tests. _Forbes
Knapp's guess is probably closer to the mark than those given by Lehrer in his piece. But no one seems to want to discuss assortative mating, where smart and high achieving males and females more easily find, marry, and mate with each other in medical schools, law schools, engineering schools, other professional and scientific programs, and in the workplace generally -- as more high IQ women enter higher education and the professions.

Explanations for the Flynn Effect generally range from better nutrition, increased literacy, higher use of abstract thinking as populations increasingly move into urban environments, and even the greater use of Caesarean section in childbirth!

One unusual explanation for the Flynn Effect is a higher incidence of Asperger's variant of autistic spectrum disorder. Another interesting explanation given is the relatively accelerated physical development of youngsters today as opposed to youngsters half a century or more ago. Earlier onset of puberty in modern times is a partial support for this argument. If this is true, comparison of today's 12 year olds' scores to the scores of 12 year olds several decades ago, would not be valid. (more here)

The amplitude of the Flynn effect is quite uneven between nations, and even seems to have slowed down or vanished in some nations. While James Flynn himself has expressed high hopes that this effect will lead to the narrowing of racial IQ gaps between whites and blacks, that result appears quite unlikely, given the trend so far.

Modern societies certainly need a healthy proportion of high IQ citizens -- members of the smart fraction -- so as to maintain and advance their high technology infrastructures. But far more public moneys are being spent in remediation and palliation of the much higher numbers of low IQ persons, than are spent to improve the ability of the smart fraction to advance the intellectual and scientific infrastructure of society. Such a trend is typical for a society that wishes to slow down its rate of deterioration, rather than a society that wishes to speed its rate of advancement.

So what good is the Flynn Effect if society doesn't know what to do with it? More on that question later.

Abstract for earlier Jonathan Wai paper looking at sex differences on the smart end of the IQ curve

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