Are We Getting Smarter ? (The Flynn Effect)

Have you ever wondered if you are smarter than your parents or grandparents? Actually, that might not be completely unlikely! At least according to the so called Flynn effect, which was first described in 1984 by the political scientist James Robert Flynn [1]. It refers to the observation that a generation scores in average slightly higher on an IQ test* than the generation before. This effect has been investigated for more than 20 industrial countries and for different types of intelligence tests that were specified on problem-solving (fluid intelligence) and knowledge and experience-based questions (crystallized intelligence), respectively.

Many people do not believe in the IQ test as a benchmark for intelligence and therefore seek a different explanation than increasing intelligence for Flynn’s observation. They argue that the measured IQ might just be related to something else, for example a training effect.

Anyways, according to Flynn, statistics seemed convenient. But if we really are getting smarter, the central question that arises is, of course: Why? The discovery heated up the old genes vs. socialization influence debate. Dealing with the latter, different theories were developed in the last decades [2]:

  • Social environment: As the world is getting more and more complex due to modernization and new technologies, people are more often confronted with abstract concepts.
  • Education: Probably there is a connection between intelligence and learning. The education in general has been improved in the last century – schools are getting better equipped and school attendance is compulsory.
  • Dedicated parents: In general, parents are more dedicated to seek for a more inspiring environment for their children, than they had for themselves.
  • Nutrition: Nowadays, people are better nourished compared to earlier generations.

What people obviously have learned from Flynn’s discovery is that there needs to be a regular updating for IQ tests and other tests in order to reset the normal distribution to the average value of 100.

Is the Flynn effect ongoing or is it just describing IQ test results from the first three-quarters of the 20th century ? More recent studies indicate that the test results in Norway are more or less stable since the nineties [3]. Another publication even claimed a recent reversal of the Flynn effect [4]. In 2012, on the other hand, Flynn himself pointed out that there are new statistics leading to an increasing IQ [5].

At least we can agree, that the Flynn effect is a controversial field in psychology and will keep scientists busy for many more years.

*The informative value of an IQ test is widely discussed and a topic for another Question of the Week.

-Jennifer Heidrich


[1] J.R. Flynn. The mean IQ of Americans: Massive gains 1932–1978. Psychological Bulletin. 1984; 95(1): 29–51.

[2] A. Furnham: 50 Psychology Ideas You Really Need to Know, Quercus Publishing Plc, 2009.

[3] J.M. Sundet, D.G. Barlaug, T.M. Torjussen. The end of the Flynn effect?: A study of secular trends in mean intelligence test scores of Norwegian conscripts during half a century, Intelligence, Volume 32, Issue 4, July–August 2004, 349-362.

[4] T.W. Teasdale, D.R. Owen. Secular declines in cognitive test scores: A reversal of the Flynn Effect, Intelligence, Volume 36, Issue 2, March–April 2008, 121-126.

[5] J.R. Flynn. Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press, 2012.