Skip to content

Flynn effect and independent measures of increasing intelligence

I wrote awhile ago on the Flynn effect (the increase in population IQ from 1940 to 1990 in many countries) and Flynn’s comments on the impossibility of meritocracy.

Several years ago, Seth Roberts, who told me about all this, had the idea of measuring changes in intelligence over time by looking at the complexity of newspapers and magazines. From a casual reading of Time magazine, etc., from 1950 or so, as compared to today, Seth had the impression that the articles had become more sophisticated.

ABout eight years ago, I set a couple of students to the task of scanning in some old magazine articles and looking at changes from 1950 to the present time. They then compared the articles using some simple readability formulas (letters per word, words per sentence, and a couple of other things–basically, whatever was already coded into Word). Nothing much came of it and we forgot the project.

Then recently I learned that Steven Johnson has written a book in which he found that TV shows have gotten more complex over the past few years, and directly connected it to the Flynn effect. I’m curious what Seth thinks about this–it seems to confirm his hypothesis.

In a series of blog entries, Carrie McLaren argues with Johnson (the commenters on the blog have lots of interesting things to say too). I don’t have anything interesting to add here. I haven’t read Johnson’s book but it appears that he analyzed content rather than simply using things like readability formulas, which perhaps is why he found interesting results whereas we got stuck.


  1. OK, so what happened to the editorial content of Scientific American during the same period? Am I the only one who thinks the magazine got dumber?

  2. dsquared says:

    Interestingly, amusingly and perhaps even relatedly, there is a Flynn effect in measures of stress and emotional instability. The median twelve year old these days shows up on standardised tests of emotional stress slap bang in the middle of the range for twelve year old mental patients of the 1950s.