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Are Americans Getting Smarter?

Lauren Lyster
Daily Ticker

Are we getting smarter? If you look at IQ test results over the last few generations, it appears to be the case.

James Flynn, academic and author of Are We Getting Smarter, became famous for finding a massive increase in IQ test scores from one generation to the next. His research has come to be known as the “Flynn Effect.”

But Flynn tells The Daily Ticker we’re not necessarily smarter, but more modern.

First the facts. Flynn says only 3% of our ancestors had cognitively demanding jobs. Today, that number is 35% in America. Schooling has developed too. Nowadays, educators teach students how to reason logically, something that wasn’t taught to our ancestors (they learned more literal skills to prepare them for a life of say, farming or working in a factory).

The evolution to a more complex, modern existence for more people is something that has translated into higher IQ scores, according to Flynn. He’s documented gains of three points a decade on the Stanford-Binet test, amounting to 30 points in 100 years. In addition, women have closed the gender gap in IQ scores.

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"If you took the scores literally, either we're all at 130 and are all gifted, or they're all at 70 and are all at the border of mental retardation,” Flynn says, putting the scores in perspective. “Now that's not true of course."

Flynn argues that our ancestors' intelligence was adequate to deal with what their world demanded. Nowadays, modern society simply demands more cognitive flexibility.

So we’re not necessarily more intelligent in Flynn’s view, we’ve just adapted to the times. He has no doubt our “dumber” ancestors would have adjusted similarly if they were transported to this day-and-age.

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For people wanting more than the generational IQ gains, is it possible to raise your IQ?

Flynn says living and working in the modern world will automatically increase one's IQ test scores. But even as humans are getting smarter in some respects, they're becoming less intelligent in others.

“Where we've fallen behind is not in terms of our ability to reason scientifically or our ability to profit from tertiary education,” he says. “We've made no progress whatsoever in terms of our political sophistication, and indeed, young people today may be worse because, thanks to their visual environment, they've stopped reading history and they've stopped reading the world's great literature."

Related: Are Millennials a “Lost Generation”?

There may be a silver lining though for a life spent watching TV. Flynn has documented what he calls a “bright tax": The brighter you are, the bigger the decline in your analytic abilities over time.

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