Bryan Caplan  

British Flynn Effect Reverses

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People in advanced countries have been getting smarter for decades; that's the Flynn effect.  Researchers have been arguing for quite a while about when the Flynn effect is going to level off.  Now Flynn says that in Great Brain, his eponymous effect has actually reversed:

Tests carried out in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old dropped by more than two points over the period.

Among those in the upper half of the intelligence scale, a group that is typically dominated by children from middle class families, performance was even worse, with an average IQ score six points below what it was 28 years ago.

What's the story?  Flynn's willing to speculate:

"It looks like there is something screwy among British teenagers," said Professor Flynn. "While we have enriched the cognitive environment of children before their teenage years, the cognitive environment of the teenagers has not been enriched.


"What we know is that youth culture is more visually orientated around computer games than they are in terms of reading and holding conversations."


Professor Flynn also believes that the larger drop in IQ among the upper half of the ability range could be due to effects of social class.

He said: "IQ gains are typically correlated by class, but the results in this case are very mixed. Maybe the rebellious peer culture of the lower half of British society has invaded the peer culture of the upper half."

Admittedly, this is just one study.  I'm still amazed by how much smarter popular culture is than it was back in the 80s, and dismissive toward all complaints about "the kids these days."  But I'll be keeping my ears perked up for further developments.

HT: Aaron C.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
RL writes:


Could you please give your evidence that popular culture is more intelligent than in the 1980s. I admit you're much more around young adults than I, given your profession, but my work with young physicians (residents) is not consistent with that. They don't write well, have difficulty with higher-order conception, are less articulate.

And that music! It's just noise!! (OK, delete the ghost of my mother, but still...)

If it's a matter of popular culture, the Flynn effect must have reversed in the 1970s as well.

Robert writes:

"I'm still amazed by how much smarter popular culture is than it was back in the 80s"

How so? Link?

Eric Crampton writes:

Bryan, the study pegs everything on comparisons between the Dumfries studies going back a long ways and a recent IQ test administered to a stratified sample of the UK population. There's more than 20 years between the last Dumfries study and the recent stratified test. And, there's zero correction for differences in demography over the 20 years. So, if the population cohort changes, we can't say much about the change in IQ. The UK had a rather large influx of immigrants over the period. Would the IQ drop have been bigger or smaller had the population in 2004 looked like the population in 1982? We can't tell from the study as presented.

All Flynn's stuff on culture is just conjecture. The main point of the paper is to show that nutrition likely can't explain the Flynn Effect in England.

Zac writes:

To those wanting proof that popular culture today is smarter than it was in the 80s..

Could "The Wire" have been made in the 80s? Could shows like House and CSI, which are heavily fictionalized but more or less science-based shows, have achieved widespread appeal?

Computers and the internet are now "cool". Being technologically illiterate as a schoolchild today is basically dooming yourself to social isolation and probably ridicule.

Only a true "old fashioned personality" could deny that popular culture today is smarter than it was in the 80s.

8 writes:

I assume Bryan is referring to this:
TV and the Flynn Effect

Have you watched Lost? I can follow all the main plot lines, but if you go onto one of the forums, there are people who recall insignificant details from 2 years ago that impact the current episode.

Although a fair criticism of the "more intelligent" media is that sometimes it is noise. Just because something has more moving parts doesn't make it intelligent, it just makes it more complex. This is the same fallacy that catches intellectuals in government.

Dan Weber writes:

If you compare "Dexter" to "Starsky and Hutch" you will definitely think culture today is smarter.

If you compare "Rock of Love," "Life On A Stick" or "2.5 Men" to "The Fugitive," "Have Gun Will Travel," or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," you will come out with a slightly different conclusion.

Vasco writes:

"Now Flynn says that in Great Brain, his eponymous effect has actually reversed:"

Don't you mean Great Britain? Interesting slip. ;)

Caliban Darklock writes:

What Eric said.

And Dan, I have tried very very hard to hate "Two and a Half Men". It is a terrible concept. It is a hideous caricature of life in America. It carries nothing even remotely similar to real people or real families or real problems.

But dammit, the show is HYSTERICAL.

And that's where you have to stop and question it. This is a sitcom. Is it really this show's job to be high-minded, to accurately showcase American life, to imitate the reality of people and families and problems?

Or is it just supposed to make so many people laugh so hard they sit through lots of commercials?

Because if you measure it with the former rule, it's a terrible show. But if you measure with the latter... it may be the greatest show ever made.

Tracy W writes:

Just because something has more moving parts doesn't make it intelligent, it just makes it more complex.

On the other hand, choosing to spend time trying to understand something with more moving parts would tend to indicate more intelligence on the part of whomever is doing the choosing, everything else being equal.

Dan Weber - the best comparisons are therefore Dexter to The Fugitive, and 2.5 Men to Starsky and Hutch.

I find it really noticeable watching game shows. Used to be a game show was a quiz. You got the answer right, you got $x dollar, or y% closer to the car, or whatever the goal was. Get another question right, you get another $x dollar, or whatever. Perhaps there might be a bonus question.
Now we have "Do you want to be a millionaire" with problems like "Do I use up my "ask a friend" on this one, or save it for later on in the show?"

Makeover shows used to be "follow a person for one week". Now we have "follow a bunch of person for multiple weeks while they develop their singing/dancing/modelling abilities in a big group".

Mass-media has gone up in complexity, implying that people are willing to devote more brain power to watching and understanding it.

Eric Crampton writes:

I've emailed with Flynn via Bill Dickens. No correction for demographic changes from 1982 to 2008. The IQ decline and the cultural bits are entirely side-stories -- the main point of the article was that nutrition is a poor explanation for the prior increase.

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