IQ and the Flynn Effect

Human intelligence is a controversial topic: perceptions about human intelligence have been used to justify genocide, to implement racist policies, and to promote a culture over and against other cultures. The IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test, created by Alfred Binet, plays a key role in the study of human intelligence, and has been used by some researchers as one of the ways to measure it. When it was first implemented, the IQ test was meant to serve as a concrete way to determine whether a child needed additional assistance in school. A few years later the test was adapted to serve as a device to measure the intellectual capability of adults (Bennett, Briggs, & Triola, 2014).

The IQ score is determined by dividing the individual’s mental age by his or her physical age. The scores are then adjusted so that the mean score is 100 and the standard deviation is 16. This adjustment causes 68% of test takers’ scores to fall within one standard deviation of the mean, 95% of test takers to score within two standard deviations of the mean, and 99.7% to score within three standard deviations of the mean. This adjustment to fit a certain model is reminiscent of the carbon dating adjustment that scientists make when attempting to date objects from certain parts of the world that fall within certain timeframes: the C-14 test provides a result that is in turn adjusted using tree rings. This C-14 method is now being contested and new ways of dating using C-14 are being proposed (Callaway, 2012).

Without adjustment, the IQ test data show a rise in scores with the passage of time. Dr. James Flynn examined the raw data and determined that there has been a rise of about six points in the mean score every 10 years (Bennett, Briggs, & Triola, 2014). This means that someone taking the test in 2013 would likely have scored six points higher on the 2003 test, and so forth. Dr. Flynn’s findings were revolutionary but have been heavily criticized recently (Kaufman, 2010). If the “Flynn effect” is real, the big question is: are humans becoming more intelligent, or are other factors playing into this rise in scores?

The answer may lie with technology: as humans interact with technology that allows them to abstract concepts and visualize information in novel ways, they are practicing some of the elements of the IQ test (Williams, in press). This increased practice for the past 70 years or so may have led to higher IQ scores. For instance, researchers have investigated the Flynn effect in “culture-free” portions of the IQ test, and have concluded that the effect is real especially for the abstract portion of the examination (Fox & Mitchum, 2013). According to their findings, children who were born in 1990 have an ability to visualize abstract concepts that is much higher than children born 50 years earlier. Considering that visually interactive technology became very popular after the 1940s—television became very common in the 1950s, followed by personal computers and videogames in the 1980s—there could be a correlation between technology and the rise in scores. Research has been recently conducted on the impact of iPods, iPhones and iPads (and related devices) on children’s education (Rosin, 2013). Knowing the impact of this interactive technology on raw IQ scores could allow researchers to better understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of its use in education, and may also provide researchers with additional evidence that could help explain how this apparent higher intellectual ability has come to be in the first place.



Bennett, J. O., Briggs, W. L., & Triola, M. F. (2014). Statistical reasoning for everyday life.   Boston, MA: Pearson/Addison Wesley.

Callaway, E. (2012, October 18). Core sample sends carbon clock farther back in time. Nature. Retrieved from

Fox, M. C., & Mitchum, A. L. (2013). A knowledge-based theory of rising scores on “culture-free” tests. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(3), 979-1000. doi:10.1037/a0030155

Kaufman, A. S. (2010). Looking through Flynn’s rose-colored scientific spectacles. Journal Of Psychoeducational Assessment, 28(5), 494-505. doi:10.1177/0734282910373573

Rosin, H. (2013). The touch-screen generation. Atlantic Monthly, 311(3), 56-65.

Williams, R. L. (in press). Overview of the Flynn effect. Intelligence. Retrieved from



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