“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.
Flynn goes on capturing the dynamic interaction between the environment and cognitive capabilities over time. Flynn's "individual multiplier" stipulates that an individual influences the environment he operates in because the environment will respond to where the individual excels. Flynn's "social multiplier" describes the escalation of cognitive demands as we progressed from an agricultural to an information based society. The social multiplier is a giant mass wide positive feedback loop. Everyone's expectation of academic and professional achievement has risen over time.
Thus, Flynn concludes we have become far better at solving abstract problems because that is what society currently demands us to do. In his mind, this does not necessarily mean we are so much smarter than our ancestors (the physiological processing capability of our brains has not changed). It just means we have a different focus (abstract and post-scientific vs concrete and pre-scientific).
Are IQ gains due to "cultural bias"? We must distinguish between cultural trends that render neutral content more familiar and cultural trends that really raise the level of cognitive skills.
The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.
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