Exploring the Flynn Effect

Exploring the Flynn Effect

Exploring the Flynn Effect

By Dr. Michelle Benson, Ed.D., FPA-BM Special Advisor


This essay will explore some of the statistical data that has been found over the years in the study of the Flynn Effect. In addition to sharing my personal connection to the Flynn Effect’s role in standardized IQ testing, I will attempt to answer why the rise in performance on IQ tests contrast with a steady decline in performance over the past decade on many standardized tests. Furthermore, I will examine the question of why IQ test results tend to differ among ethnic groups, and upon the examination of the Flynn Effect, if my perceptions change or stay the same.

Introducing the Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect is not only a phenomenon of human intelligence, but described as a long-term trend towards rising scores on IQ tests, which results in “norms obsolescence” as researched by: Trehan, Stuebing, Fletcher and Hiscock (2014). The Flynn effect, named for psychologist James Flynn who researched the rise in the average intelligence quotient (IQ) scores in countries such as the U.S. between 1950 and 2000 (Fischer, 2013). Notably suggested by Beaujean and Yanyan (2014), the Flynn Effect has had a forensic influence, most notably since the US Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that it was cruel and unusual to execute someone with an intellectual difficulty; as IQ scores are a substantial piece of evidence.

IQ Scores and their Meaning

IQ scores are set at a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 16, which gives psychologists a classification system in determining whether a subject is intellectually deficient (70<) or intellectually superior (130>). In a similar use, the 68-95-99.7 rule states that about 68% (more precisely, 68.3%) of the scores are within one standard deviation of the mean. Therefore, about 100% – 68% = 32% of the scores are more than one standard deviation from the mean (Bennett, et al pp. 171, 2014). Because of the 68-95-99.7 rule, a researcher can state that a 68% of a population has an IQ score in-between 80-120 and 32% have an IQ score in-between 70-110.

Focus on Psychology: Are We Smarter than Our Parents?

There is no doubt that today’s children are smarter than their parents, or children from a century ago. This article takes readers back to the late 1800’s when Alfred Binet created a test to help children in need. Binet took a child’s mental age and divided it by the physical age and then multiplied by 100 to define the intelligence quotient (IQ). Further, the article covers how an IQ is defined today by ways of a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 16. Then the article took an interesting turn by asking about personal awareness in the current controversies that surround the reliability of IQ test scores.

The first question stated if IQ tests measure intelligence, or something else? And secondly, if they did measure intelligence, can that be measured by environmental or educational factors? A current answer would say “yes” because IQ scores are adjusted to fit normal distributions with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 16. In other words, scoring is on a curve, which makes it practically unheard of to expect IQ scores to rise or fall with time. With all aside, in the 1980’s a professor named Dr. Flynn made a different discovery that led to the Flynn Effect Theory. Raw scores could be used in finding abstract reasoning abilities in a long-term trend that increased IQ rates by 6 points a decade.

The Flynn Effect and the Raven’s Progressive Matrix

This is where my personal experience chimes in. In second grade, my son’s teacher noticed something special in his ability to address reasoning with logic. After the paperwork was finished, he was sent to the school psychologist who tested my son’s IQ and abstract reasoning by ways of the Ravens Progressive Matrix (RPM) which is a “G” intelligence measuring instrument, a test of intellectual capacity, and a 60 item, multiple choice test that measures abstract reasoning by ways of patterns that get progressively harder to solve.

The Flynn effect is quite noticeable in G- loaded tests, as is the case in the Raven’s Progressive Matrix. Armstrong and Woodley (2014) added that the Flynn effect is directly analogous to IQ gains via retesting, noting that Raven’s Progressive Matrices is particularly sensitive to both the effects of retesting and the Flynn effect. Haywood (2013) points out that the most prominent positive effect has been on scores on intelligence tests such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scales. Silverman (2013) found out that the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM) appears to be the most popular intelligence scale worldwide.

With all research aside, my son tested as being a second grader within the top 15% of the San Diego Unified School District with “above superior intelligence” and an IQ of 144. The San Diego School District’s set standards of identification for the GATE program are as follows: Cluster identification- Ravens score of at least 98%ile plus factors, and Seminar identification constitutes a Ravens score of 99.6-99.9%ile plus factors. Factors expressed are related to economics, language and special education. Scores are then taken and compared to the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for an IQ variance. For instance, if a student scores a 99.6%, then their IQ would be 144 and if the student scored a 98%, their IQ would be 132.

In addition to assessing a child’s IQ, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Fourth Edition (WISC-IV) has also been useful in correctly identifying gifted and talented children. (Wellisch & Brown, 2011). Silverman, (2013) speculates that a single IQ score is not enough and closes opportunities where one or two points are the cut off to a quality education.

Upon recommendation, my son was assessed again by ways of the Ravens Progressive Matrix. He scored the exact same score as he did in second grade which points to a very reliable methodology in determining the intellectual needs of high functioning students. To this day, my son is in advanced placement classes in the sixth grade which are taught by fully credentialed seminary teachers within the San Diego Unified School District. Just because my son has tested into gifted and talented education (GATE), does not mean that he is smarter than everyone, it just means that his abstract reasoning gives him the ability to interpret theory on a different level, thus he works through common core standards with complete comprehension and finishes faster than his peers. Because of my personal experience in this, I am contemplating taking on this research to formulate my dissertation.

My Views of the Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect did not measure intelligence, but encouraged a second look at our children’s ability to use logical and abstract thinking. Moreover, the Flynn Effect increased scores that resulted from environmental factors. My view of the Flynn Effect also takes into consideration the past 100 years where children were part of a family whereabouts the mother was always home and the father went to work. These days, children were sheltered from the outside world and matured slower than children in today’s society. Worldly intelligence was slower to develop 100 years ago.

However, in the last several decades, children all over the world are acquiring intelligence earlier, maturing physically and mentally faster than ever. An ever-growing exposure to highly technological devices (iPad, eBooks and laptops) are bringing young children into a different environment of thinking where educational games are encouraging classification, abstract thinking and a use of logic to solve problems. I can vouch for these games because I enjoy the ones where logic is being challenged and I encourage my son to play along.

Wrapping it up, the Flynn Effect is just where it should be and demonstrating consistency as applied to today’s highly technical environment. The scores that are increasing with the Flynn Effect are a reliable sign of the changing of times. My advice is to keep exposing young children to abstract and creative ways to develop their intellectual thinking and their ideas. Exposure to classic art and music is a great start.

Why does the rise in performance on IQ tests contrast with a steady decline in performance over the past decade on many standardized tests?

The answer to this question all relies on the environmental factors involved. Starting from a modern perspective, Today’s IQ tests are scoring on the ability to unleash abstract and logical thinking with creative questions and diagrams. Relating the scores on a child’s environmental factors, (mental age/physical age) points to the sign of changing times in the past decade. The Flynn Effect has opened up a new world of intelligence to the combined environmental factors in a person’s life. Over the last decade, social media hit the ground running and education is offered online, where over five decades ago it was not. These two factors alone are giving the Flynn Effect more power to research the further effects of the environment as it relates to intelligence. On a deeper plane, I wonder if research has been conducted yet as to what percent of our brains we are using in 2014, as compared to the year 1900.

Why do results on IQ tests tend to differ among different ethnic groups?

First and foremost, all races have an equal ability to release intelligence. Truly, there should not be any gaps between ethnic groups, nor their ability to perform. Kaufman (2010) enlightens that one way to collaborate the results of an IQ test to those of an ethnic group is the Dickens and Flynn’s ‘social multiplier effect’. Their proposed effect takes into account the importance of culture in influencing what particular forms of intelligence it educates, spotlights, and nurtures. The Flynn Effect links race and ethnicity to many environmental factors such as athleticism. For example, there are many countries that are serious about sportsmanship. Every four years, the world’s greatest athletes gather for the Olympics. Not only are the athletes great at what they do, but they were trained, taught and influenced by genetic and environmental factors that made them into intelligent athletes that have one goal in mind, to persevere. Only by environmental factors can research address if IQ tests differ among ethnic groups. Upon my research, I would say “yes”, results do differ according to environmental factors.

Did the Flynn Effect change my perception about IQ tests?

Absolutely! The Flynn Effect has reached a new level, encouraging researchers and psychologists that intelligence can be a central factor of one’s environment. This glass half full, unbiased approach to the decoding of intelligence quotients is motivational and offers a light at the end of the tunnel. On the flip side, environmental factors are not always positive. This is why it is very important for the psychologist to note, for the purpose of statistics, if the subject has questionable environmental factors because these could affect the test results. In wrapping it up, I am pleased by the knowledge that I have obtained about the Flynn Effect. Everything that I have read and researched about in writing this paper verifies that I am giving my son the right support to help him develop his abstract thinking in a deeper sense. I will continue to enhance his environment with challenging academia and a healthy lifestyle.


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The FPA-BM has as Special Advisor Dr. Michelle C. Benson, Ed.D. Dr. Michelle is a consultant, university professor and advisor to many. Dr. Michelle graduated from Northcentral University with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. She holds a Master in Organizational Leadership/Management from Ashford University. Dr. Michelle has taught for the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Community Health for Bachelor and Master level learners. Dr. Michelle also can motivate and lead her students to career and life changing opportunities. She is a student-centered education professional and is passionate to see success in people she encounters. Dr. Michelle has authored five journal publications and is always seeking ways to add more research to existing topics in leadership, learning and management.