Is the IQ Test Still a Clever Idea?

James Flynn, who discovered our IQ increases every generation, is an advocate of the long-established IQ test. But Robert Sternberg questions its wisdom.

Try to recall your grandparents for a moment. The conversations you had with them in your childhood. Their stories, to which you listened with bated breath. The days when you thought they were the smartest people in the world.

Now think about a child. Any child from the street, the kind who’s busy right now pestering his mother and father to buy him the Trash Pack ‏(don’t ask‏). An ordinary, average child. According to a well-known psychological phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect,” when this child grows up his IQ will surpass that of your grandparents by at least 30 points. Chances are that his IQ will be about 10 points higher than yours. And that’s not all: According to contemporary IQ tests, your grandparents’ IQ was so low, it’s a wonder they even managed to finish high school.

The Flynn effect describes a phenomenon for which, to date, nobody has found a sufficient explanation, including the researcher, James Flynn, who first discovered it, in 1984: the fact that the average IQ increases everywhere in the world at a fixed rate, from year to year. Children who were born in 2000 will score 0.3 points more, on average, than those born in 1999, and 3 points more than those born in 1990. Their IQ will be about 10 points higher than that of their parents. This increase has been found in all the countries studied, and in every gender, race, category of education and income, in rural and urban populations worldwide.

“If we go back even farther,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an article in The New Yorker, “the Flynn effect puts the average IQs of the schoolchildren of 1900 at around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.”

Were our ancestors stupid? Probably not. Are we all raising geniuses? That’s improbable. So what’s actually happening here?

“Just as our cars have become more sophisticated since the 19th century, our brains have developed, in a very radical way,” says James Flynn, in a phone interview from his home in New Zealand. “We think that people in the 19th century were like us, but their brain worked differently. That has amazing consequences for our daily lives.”

Flynn’s latest book was published in the United States last year, and was called “Are We Getting Smarter?” The answer, as he repeatedly explains, is complicated.

When Flynn discovered the eponymous effect, he was actually a political scientist specializing in ethics and moral philosophy, and was studying a well known and controversial phenomenon. The IQ of African-Americans is lower than that of their white contemporaries, which has led certain scholars to claim that the source of the disparity is genetic. Flynn, who wanted to prove that the causes are in fact environmental, examined the results of military IQ tests − which are similar to those taken by enlisted Israeli men on the way to the induction base − and found that the IQ of blacks had increased over the years. In effect, the IQ of all the subjects had increased from one generation to the next. “I thought they would say that military tests are no indication, so I started to look at general IQ tests,” Flynn explains. The results changed the course of his career.

The difference between average and genius

IQ tests are regularly updated. In the past this was done mainly in order to update the lexicon, about once every 30 years. Today it happens once every decade. A group of subjects gets the new test, their average result receives a grade of 100, the standard deviation is set at 15 points, and most of the population will be at a distance of two standard deviations from the average, in each direction ‏(between 70 and 130‏). But every time the tests are changed, a group of children receives both the old test and the new one, for research purposes.

In 1974, when the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children was renormed ‏(updated‏), they gave the children the new test as well as the previous one, which was written in 1949. Children who received a grade of 100 in the new tests scored eight points higher in the old tests. “I noticed that on every test I checked. I was surprised that no one had thought much about it,” Flynn says. The significance of this fact is that the same child can be considered either entirely average or exceptionally smart, depending on which test he is given. In effect, researchers had already noticed the phenomenon, but only among a specific population group, such as immigrants. Flynn was the one who discovered that the effect is universal.

Just as interesting as the increase in grades is its pattern. IQ tests examine two types of intelligence: crystallized intelligence, which measures knowledge and skills acquired in the past ‏(for example, vocabulary and arithmetic exercises‏); and fluid intelligence, the ability to deal with unfamiliar situations, which requires finding and implementing new rules. In light of improvements in education in the past century, we would have expected the improvement to appear in the parts that test previous knowledge, but they remained almost unchanged.

The lion’s share of the increase in points can be attributed to two parts of the test. One measures the ability to find “the similarity between concepts” − for example, what do a dog and a rabbit have in common. An answer that would receive a low grade would be: “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” An answer that would receive a higher grade would be “both are mammals,” which refers to an abstract category and not physical characteristics alone, and attests to more advanced thinking.

The second part deals with finding relationships in a row of geometric forms. Both deal with abstract thinking and classification. Both were designed to be influenced as little as possible by culture-dependent information.

In other words, we are not necessarily much smarter than people born in the early 20th century. We are simply better at abstraction, classification and referring to hypothetical situations. “If you had asked someone 100 years ago about the connection between a dog and a rabbit, he would have thought about what use they have in the concrete world,” says Flynn. “Today, even young people use abstractions (such as mammal) to classify them and render the world more comprehensible.”

Flynn mentions the research of Alexander Luria, a Soviet psychologist who, in the 1930s, went to study the effects of the Russian Revolution on remote rural areas in Uzbekistan. In one of the villages Luria presented a farmer with the following question: “There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there?”

“Almost certainly,” the farmer replied. “If it’s a big city, there should be camels there.”

“But I said there are no camels in Germany,” Luria pointed out, “and this city is located in Germany.”

“If it’s a small village,” the farmer said, “maybe there’s no room there for camels.”

We can assume that 80 years later the Uzbek farmer would have understood what a hypothetical assumption is. He might even have a smartphone, a device that requires abstract thinking by the very fact that a button is a conceptual rather than a physical entity. Technology is apparently one of the factors that has affected the creation of the Flynn effect. But the main cause, in his opinion, is “scientific thinking,” which was a result of the Industrial Revolution.

“In 1900, about 3 percent of people did conceptually challenging work,” Flynn says. “The other 97 percent worked in industry, agriculture or as salespeople in a shop. Today, about 35 percent of the population does professional work that requires some creative thinking. Computer technicians in the university are better today than when I started out, and have to know about more things. A banker in the 19th century had to know some arithmetic, and to assess whether the person would repay a loan. But look at the bankers who destroyed the world in 2008: They had to do complicated calculations, look at models of the property market, imagine how debt could be made to seem an asset. That's far more challenging work.”

The universal nature of the Flynn effect, though, and the fact that it continues to occur at a fixed pace, under varied circumstances and in various countries, attests to the fact that apparently there is more than one underlying reason. Among the theories raised by scholars were improved nutrition, better educated mothers and fewer children per family, as well as the development of visual abilities from exposure to television, computer games, etc. Interestingly, the one area where it seems to have ceased is in Scandinavia.

The hypothetical is ethical

Flynn’s discovery sometimes has had unforeseen consequences. For example, in recent years Flynn has been serving as an expert witness in the trials of those on death row in the United States. In 2000, the Supreme Court decided that it was cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution to execute someone who was lacking moral competence, and that one of the standards for determining this was low IQ scores. Criminals with an IQ lower than 70 cannot be executed, but if as a child the criminal was given an old IQ test, his grade may be too high. “He is being assessed against the children of his age of an older generation, who set lower norms, and this can inflate his IQ by as much as 8 points and get him executed,” Flynn notes.

Flynn himself, although he has made a successful career of his psychological findings, remains a political scientist at heart, and what really interests him is the connection between politics and ethics. In his many books he has written extensively about politics and has also discussed U.S.-Israel relations. Two months ago he visited the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to give a  series of seminars on IQ tests, and what he found important to tell me, right at the start of our conversation, was that he had also visited the outskirts of Hebron, in order to observe the effect of the occupation firsthand.

That’s why it’s not surprising that he also examined the implications of his discovery for politics and morality. Flynn, 79, was born in the United States and lived there until 1963. “When I was 21, it was the year of Martin Luther King’s bus boycott,” he tells me. “My father was Irish, and he hated the British so much that he didn’t have the energy to hate anyone else, but he was prejudiced against blacks, too. When I tried to argue with him I said, ‘But what if you were to wake up tomorrow and you were black?’ And he said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. That couldn’t happen.’ He didn’t take the hypothetical seriously. We do, and that gives us a different attitude toward ethical principles. We can’t dismiss logical inconsistencies so easily.”

But 400 years ago there were also some people who thought as we do today.

“There have always been advanced minds: even in Aristotle’s time there were people who anticipated the scientific ethos because they had a rational attitude toward reality. But the people in general were immersed in concrete reality. They didn’t classify using abstractions, didn’t think about hypothetical cases or universal principles, and didn’t assess them in the light of logic.”

What about the U.S. Constitution? The French Revolution?

“The U.S. Constitution was written by highly educated people, the elite, during a time when science was beginning to advance, by people like Benjamin Franklin. Aristotle himself did a wonderful study about various animals and what they have in common. There have always been an intellectual minority that knew how to apply those principles, but it was limited to a very small group. And then came the Industrial Revolution, which required educated manpower. It required schools, where there were exams, and modern thinking developed, beyond the concrete world.

“One of the ways in which the new thinking helped is by upgrading our ethical principles. If you’re capable of putting yourself in the shoes of someone of a different ethnic origin, it will be more difficult for you to make racist generalizations.”

Surely the human brain can easily contain these contradictions.

“True, you can think abstractly and understand ethical principles, and still there are people who, due to ignorance and prejudice, will hold benighted opinions. The speeches of U.S. presidents today are as full of nonsense as they were 100 years ago.”

If we’re so much more educated and better at abstract thinking, why isn’t the world experiencing a cultural renaissance?

“The problem is that IQ tests aren’t good at measuring creativity. Einstein, Michelangelo, it’s hard to know what creates such people. People are more educated today, and far more people can do smarter things. There’s no question that today many more people know how to improve machines. But I don’t think that music or literature are better. There are more people who write well, and a bigger audience that reads them. But I’m not sure what produces geniuses.”

Wisdom: not a number

What do IQ tests measure, and is too much importance attributed to them? That is one of the controversial questions of recent decades. One of the prominent opponents of these tests is Prof. Robert Sternberg of Oklahoma State University. “I don’t understand why a smart man like Flynn is so preoccupied with IQ tests,” he says in a phone interview from his office. “It’s probably because he himself did so well in them.”

Sternberg himself received a low grade in an IQ test in his childhood, which influenced his teachers’ attitude toward him and his self-confidence for several years, until a teacher saw the brain beyond the grade.

As an adult Sternberg became a respected researcher in the field of psychology, devoting his career to finding alternative tests for measuring human abilities − for example, tests that examine creativity, practical abilities and even ethics. At the age of 63 he sadly admits that he hasn’t been able to undermine the status of the IQ tests. “There are smart people who are huge failures,” he says. “The preoccupation with IQ grades is exaggerated and destructive. Look at the U.S. Congress, how many educated people there are there, and they can’t get anything done. And I don’t think Syria’s problem is that Assad is not smart enough.”

Instead of intelligence, Sternberg suggests measuring “wisdom,” which he defines as the ability and desire to use one’s intelligence and abilities to try to promote the general good. He says that IQ measures specific abilities, but is too narrow an index.

Why is so much importance still attributed to intelligence tests?

“Because too many people profit from the existing system, and don’t want to change it. First, people who achieve positions of power are people who succeeded in the tests, and they think they are successful and are seeking people like themselves. Second, the results of the tests sound very precise, there’s competition among schools and universities, and a self-fulfilling belief develops − people who don’t succeed in the tests don’t receive opportunities, and then they aren’t successful and people can say, ‘We told you so, what losers.’ It’s very hard to change society. There’s no evil genius here with harmful intentions, but it’s hard to change systems. People get stuck in their way of doing things, and have a problem finding creative solutions.”

And maybe what the Flynn effect actually measures is not our intellectual abilities, but something else entirely. After 100 years of more or less fixed increases in IQ, why are the Scandinavian countries proving an exception? “Maybe because the Nordic societies are more advanced, they have reached the upper limit,” Flynn theorizes. “Educated adults provide their children with a sufficient vocabulary, modern teaching methods, more intellectually demanding work, most of the people receive an excellent education, and families are small and very modern. Maybe the effect actually measures the progress of the modern world and that progress has limits.”

Yael Bogen