Re: IQ and the Flynn effect

Hal Finney (
Tue, 30 Sep 1997 08:36:51 -0700

Derek Strong writes:
> The key difference lies not in the richness of the pictures, nor in the
> fact that they are moving. What is different is the rapidity with which a
> vast number of different *scenes* can be (and regularly are) thrown at the
> brain. Humans are used to, say, watching the high speed chase of a lion
> running down a wildebeest. Fine. But TV lets you watch, say, a sprinting
> lion, then a sprinting wildebeest, then the legs of each, then a passing
> car, then an airplane, then a flock of birds, then the narrowing iris of a
> human eye, then an explosion, then a view of the earth from space, then a
> shot of a human sitting on a couch looking at all of this, all in a
> timeframe that is *amazingly* short (on the order of a couple of seconds).

This is true, but of course television has only been available since the
1950s, while the Flynn effect goes back at least a decade and probably
several decades before that.

> If you want an even better example, rent pretty much any Zucker Brothers
> Movie (Hot Shots: Deux, for instance) and any Mel Brooks movie (Robin Hood:
> Men in Tights, for instance), and then watch first the Zucker Brothers
> movie, followed by the Brooks movie. I guarantee that you will feel the
> Brooks movie to be interminably slow, with punchlines coming at you only
> once every minute or so, rather than every few seconds, as in the Zucker
> Brothers movie.

That's an interesting point. You're suggesting that Brooks, an old man,
is putting out imagery at a pace which is comfortable for him, while the
Zuckers, who are relatively young, are using the faster pacing more
typical of their generation. I wonder if this difference can be observed
in the works of other directors.

I think you're right that TV pacing has picked up over the years. One of
the complaints older people make about music videos is that they cut too
quickly to see what's going on. Is this the cause though or an effect
of the Flynn changes?

Another problem oldsters have with MTV is that the videos are too
abstract, too ambiguous, too confusing. Younger people can handle this,
and although they may not always know what the videos are about either,
they are comfortable with the ambiguity. They can adopt a mental stance
where they are accepting the imagery and taking value from it, without
trying to judge, categorize, or pigeonhole it.

I believe this kind of change is also a cause/manifestation of the Flynn
effect. It represents an increase in mental flexibility and independent
thinking. We have seen a trend for centuries away from the inflexible,
autocratic, unthinking social systems of the past, towards a world where
people are exposed to many more new ideas as well as new images.

All the time people (mostly older) are complaining that they have to think
about things that used to be taken for granted. Back in the 1970s the
watergate scandal was a real shock to the older generation. Today it is
hard to imagine/remember why people would have been so surprised to learn
that their leaders were imperfect and even morally subpar. We see that the
structure of the political system invites cheating in order to achieve
political success. But most people did not think in those terms back
then. They just assumed, because that is what they had been taught, that
their leaders would have sterling morals. Watergate meant that they
would have to actively think about and evaluate each leader as to his
individual moral character. The problem becomes much more difficult.

We've also seen the same kind of complaints about relationships between
the sexes. At one time social relations were rigidly structured.
Men had one role, women another. But throughout this century this
structure has weakened, with new kinds of relationships developing.
Today we have dozens of different possible kinds of relationships, people
adopt ambiguous sexual roles, some men and women want a more old-fashioned
partner, others want to experiment. You can't know what to expect from
a person until you really get to know them. As with the other changes,
it's a more difficult task, more demanding mentally. People complain,
but they adapt.

You can come up with dozens of other examples. At one time people's
work lives were determined by their family. Today they must make their
own choices. At one time our responsibilities and roles with regard
to child raising were given. Today they must be decided. At one time
relations to others in the workplace were fixed by position and rank.
Today the boss may dress like the workers and expect to be treated much
like everyone else - while at the same time expecting subtle deference.
At one time art was mostly representational. Then came abstraction, and
today virtually anything can be called art - it's more a matter of
intention than product.

> Probably, (wild speculation here), this trend can be traced back to before
> the advent of television. Emerging forms of media have allowed us to speed
> up and vary our brain input in many ways, if you think about it. Wouldn't
> you expect this training to have some effect on our intelligence?

The real question is whether the increases measured by the Flynn effect
reflect what we normally think of as intelligence. Without actually being
able to visit and interact with an average person of 50 or 100 years ago,
it is hard to judge. What we can do is talk with people who were young 50
years ago, today's 60 year olds. They have lower IQs than young people,
and IMO lack the kinds of mental flexibility that I've been describing.
According to the SciAm article, their IQ may not actually have dropped
with age, but rather low IQs (by today's measurements) were normal when
they were young.