The Flynn Effect and IQ Disparities Among Races, Ethnicities, and Nations: Are There Common Links?
By Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
Over the years, various ‘social multipliers' (Dickens & Flynn, 2006) have been proposed to account for the Flynn Effect-the dramatic increase in IQ witnessed every decade of the 20th century. Potential environmental effects include increased nutrition, increased test familiarity, heterosis, increased scientific education, video games, TV show complexity, modernization, and more. Surely a combination of factors contributed to the rise. In this post, I want to focus though on a few changes over the course of the past 100 years that have particular implications for understanding race, ethnic, and national disparities in IQ. First let’s look at literacy.
Literacy involves the ability to write, read, and comprehend information of varying levels of complexity. It is estimated that there are 774 million illiterate adults in the world, 65% whom are women (UNESCO Intsistute for Statistics, 2007). In the United States alone, 5% of the adult population is completely nonliterate (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). Self-reported literacy skills of both White and Black populations of the U.S. have been increasing steadily since 1870, however (National Center for Education Statistics, 1993). One study showed that the IQ and literacy scores of Blacks increased in parallel from 1980 to 2000 (Dickens & Flynn, 2006).
The importance of being able to read for performance on an IQ test cannot be understated. Instead of measuring ‘intelligence' in a nonliterate test-taker, the test is measuring that person's inability to read. While ‘intelligence' may certainly influence an individual's ability to read, society has a lot of influence on how many inhabitants even get the chance to read in the first place. Therefore, reading skills may exert important effects on particular races, ethnicities, and nationalities that have historically been through much discrimination and as a result, received limited opportunities for literacy development.
An enormous body of evidence collected over the past 50 years shows that different ethnicities and races within a country tend to show substantial differences in their average level of IQ. Some researchers argue that this gap is narrowing (Dickens & Flynn, 2006) whereas others argue that the IQ gap has remained stable (Murray, 2006). IQ test score discrepancies are also found between nations. For instance, sub-Saharan African countries have demonstrated statistically significantly lower IQs than other nations (Lynn, 2006, 2008). These findings have led some researchers to propose that such IQ gaps found across ethnicities, races, and nationalities suggests a difference in innate brain capacity (see Lynn & Vanhanen, 2006).
Until recently, the phenomenon of the Flynn Effect, and IQ gaps found between different ethnicities, races, and nationalities have not been tied together. For the first time ever, Psychologist David F. Marks systematically analyzed the association between literacy skills and IQ across time, nationality, and race (Marks, 2010).
If increasing literacy were really explaining a number of seemingly different IQ trends, then you would expect to see a few things. First, within a population you should expect increased education of literacy skills to be associated with an increase in the average IQ of that population. Second, IQ gains should be most pronounced in the lower half of the IQ bell curve since this is the section of the population that prior to the education would have obtained relatively lower scores due to their inability to comprehend the intelligence test's instructions. With increased literacy, you should expect to see a change in the skewness of the IQ distribution from positive to negative as a result of higher rates of literacy in the lower half of the IQ distribution (but very little change in the top half of the distribution). You should also expect to see differences on the particular intelligence test subscales, with increased literacy showing the strongest effects on verbal tests of intelligence and minimal differences on other tests of intelligence. If all these predictions hold up, there would be support for the notion that secular IQ gains and race differences are not different phenomena but have a common origin in literacy.
To test these predictions, Marks looked at samples representative of whole populations (rather than individuals), and used ecological methods to calculate statistical associations between IQ and literacy rates across different countries. Were Marks' findings consistent with the predictions?
Strikingly, yes. He found that the higher the literacy rate of a population, the higher that population's mean IQ, and the higher that population's mean IQ, the higher the literacy rate of that population. When literacy rates declined, mean IQ also declined. Marks also found evidence for unequal improvements across the entire IQ spectrum: the greatest effects of increased literacy rates were on those in the lower half of the IQ distribution. Interestingly, he also found that both the Flynn Effect and racial/national IQ differences showed the largest effects of literacy on verbal tests of intelligence, with the perceptual tests of intelligence showing no consistent pattern.
It must be noted that literacy wasn't the only factor responsible for the Flynn effect. Adopting the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (C-H-C) framework (McGrew, 2005, 2009) Marks found that Visual processing (Gv) and Processing Speed (Gs) also made important contributions.
It should also be noted that Mark's findings only speak to populations (not individuals) and do not say much about causation. The findings can only definitively say that some not-yet-identified variable is causing both literacy and IQ scores to change. To really test for causation, future experimental studies should be conducted to look at the effect of literacy intervention on IQ scores in comparison with a control group not receiving literacy intervention and should also investigate intervening variables that affect both literacy and IQ. Still, the result that population level literacy changes with population IQ is suggestive that increased literacy is causing increased IQ.
Even though there is still much work to be done, Marks’ findings have some very strong implications for our understanding of the Flynn effect, the nature of intelligence, and the origin of race and secular differences in intelligence.
In Hernstein & Murray's 1994 book The bell curve: intelligence and class structure in American life, most of their controversial claims about IQ differences, ethnicity, and social issues came from the United States Department of Labor's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This survey includes the Armed Forces Qualifications Test, which was developed by the Department of Defense and measures the ability of potential recruits to learn how to perform military duties. Since many of Hernstein & Murray's conclusions were based on this test, it's important to really examine what that test measures.
Marks did just that by scanning the literature for datasets containing test estimates for populations of groups taking both the Armed Forces Qualifications Test and tests of literacy. One study on nine groups of soldiers differing in job and reading ability found a correlation of .96 between the Armed Forces Qualifications Test and reading achievement (Sticht, Caylor, Kern, & Fox, 1972). Another study looking at the period between 1980 and 1992 found significant improvements among Black and Hispanic populations in their Armed Forces Qualifications Test scores while Whites only showed a slight decrement (Kilburn, Hanser, & Klerman, 1998). Another study obtained reading scores for 17-year olds for those same ethnic groups and dates and found a correlation of .997 between reading scores and Armed Forces Qualifications Test scores (Campbell et al., 2000). This nearly perfect correlation was based on six pairs of data points from six independent population samples evaluated by two separate groups of investigators. As Marks notes,
"On the basis of the studies summarized here, there can be little doubt that the Armed Forces Qualifications Test is a measure of literacy."
The Flynn Effect was intriguing all by itself. Now that researchers have shown common linkages between the Flynn Effect, race, ethnic, and nationality disparities, there are even more questions to be answered and potential research avenues to be explored. The Marks study suggests a crucial environmental factor is literacy. If this is so, then interventions that increase literacy will also narrow the IQ gap found between different races and nationalities.
Literacy intervention can take many forms though. Researchers should consider not just improved access to schooling but also lots of other conditions that may affect literacy rates. For instance, recent research shows the important effects of parasites and pathogens on a nation's intelligence (see recent article in The Economist called Mens sana in corpore sano). Christopher Eppig and colleague's argue in their recent article in Proceedings of the Royal Society that the Flynn effect may be caused in part by the decrease in the intensity of infectious diseases as nations develop. Looking at data from 192 countries and 28 infectious diseases in those countries, they found that the higher the disease burden of that population, the lower that population's mean IQ level, with robust correlations ranging from -0.76 to -0.82. The chance that this correlation came about at random is reported by The Economist to be less than 10,000. Interestingly, when Eppig and colleagues controlled for other contributing variables to national differences in IQ (temperature, distance from Africa, gross domestic product per capita and various measures of education), infectious disease remained the most powerful predictor of average national IQ.
These results suggest that infections and parasites such as intestinal worms, malaria, and perhaps most importantly (according to Eppig and colleagues) bugs that cause diarrhea, can all have important effects on both literacy rates and IQ scores. The good news is that disease interventions such as vaccinations, clean water and proper sewage can have quite outstanding effects on multiple areas of cognition.
This latest research on the environmental effects of nutrition (Colom et al., 2005, but see Flynn, 2009), disease, literacy, and more on both the rise in IQ and ethnic, racial, and national disparities in IQ point to the importance of the environment for developing intelligence as well as the importance for researchers to be very careful when they use intelligence test performance (especially verbal tests) to make inferences about hereditary differences between different ethnic groups and nationalities.
© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Louisa Egan for bringing the Economist article to my attention.
For more on the Flynn Effect, see:
Are you smarter than Aristotle? Part I
Are you smarter than Aristotle?: On the Flynn Effect and the Aristotle Paradox
IQ Bashing, Breadancing, The Flynn Effect, and Genes
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Colom, R., Lluis-Font, J. M., & Andrés-Pueyo, A. (2005) The generational intelligence gains are caused by decreasing variance in the lower half of the distribution: supporting evidence for the nutrition hypothesis. Intelligence, 33, 83-91.
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McGrew, K. S. (2005) The Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory of cognitive abilities: past, present, and future. In D. P. Flanagan & P. L. Harrison (Eds.), Contemporary intellectual assessment: theories, tests, and issues. (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford. Pp. 136-182.
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