The ‘Flynn Effect’

Human intelligence has been a subject of extensive debate for a long time in the academic and medical fields, as well as in everyday conversations. One name stands out, however, having made waves in recent discussions about the state of human intelligence: James Flynn. Flynn is best known for the phenomenon named after him: the “Flynn effect”, in which the intelligence of the world’s general population has been significantly soaring since the 1930’s until present.

In most of Flynn’s writings (most remarkably in his latest book Are We Getting Smarter?), however, he chooses not to go too deeply into the element of gender in relation to people’s IQ. On the other hand, a more recent study by Jonathan Wai, Martha Putallaz and Matthew Makel of Duke University brings light to this oft-shunned aspect of intelligence research. The paper concurs with the Flynn effect, and says that it is especially applied to the “smartest” part of the population (that is, the proportion of those with exceptional IQ has been steadily increasing over the past few decades). Moreover, the study also reveals that the ratio between brainy men and women has been levelling out as the number of exceptionally intelligent females catches up with that of males.

Another of Flynn’s most interesting points which I would like to highlight here is his theory that the reason behind this increase in human intelligence is the fact that the world is getting more complex, thus requiring more from humans in order to understand and get a grip of it.

John Naughton, in his review of Flynn’s Are We Getting Smarter?, explains Flynn’s theory in this way: “he thinks, for example, that the reason IQ scores have been rising is a reflection of the fact that the world in which we live and work has become steadily more complex. In that sense, the brain is like a muscle: it improves with use”.

This, in my own opinion, is a breath of fresh air. For a generation that seems to be too reliant on technology, it is refreshing and heartening to know that the complexity brought about by modernity has positive consequences as well. However, all of these research findings lead us to the simple question: What is intelligence, actually, in the first place? Is the concept of an “Intelligence Quotient” and standardized IQ tests appropriate metrics of an individual’s intelligence? Most importantly, are our current perceptions of intelligence relevant and adequately representative of humans’ diversity?

It may be impossible to find ultimate answers to these questions – there seems to be no axiom for this research area – but they are all important things to ponder on nonetheless. For the time being, what is most essential is to realize the full potential of the Flynn effect and continue to innovate ways to keep this intelligence boom at a steady pace. After all, geniuses may not be the only valuable members of society, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have a handful of them for the next generation.

Knut Harald Nylænde is an Oslo-based businessman who is largely interested in business, politics, culture, and defence. He holds degrees from two of Norway’s reputable business schools, the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) and the BI Norwegian Business School.