Last year scientists announced a terrifying new finding. After years of steadily inching up, IQ scores actually started to decline over the last few decades. And this wasn't just based on data from some small subset of people. This was the conclusion from tests given to hundreds of thousands of men in Norway. 

Scientists were both alarmed and baffled by the sudden reversal of the steady rise in IQ known as the Flynn Effect. After nearly a century of steady gains, humanity appeared to suddenly be getting dumber. The hunt was on for reasons. Was the cause our bad diets, trashy media, screen addiction, or something else? 

The results of some of this research are in, and I have good news for you. It appears our brains aren't actually turning to mush after all. There are still plenty of other reasons to be concerned about junk food and social media, but it looks increasingly like the Flynn Effect is alive and well. 

Norway isn't like everywhere else.  

A large portion of the nation of Norway is a pretty huge sample for a study, but as we all know, Norway isn't the world. The prosperous, well governed Nordic nation is wildly different from many other places on the planet. Therefore, the first thing scientists wanted to know was whether the trend observed in Norway held true across the world. 

After much digging around in the data, the answer appears to be, not really. Other Nordic countries showed a similar loss in IQ points, but the U.S. and South Korea look like they're still getting progressively smarter. Other nations had even weirder results. Germans appear to have gotten worse at special reasoning but better at verbal intelligence. Dutch high schoolers seem to be dumber, but adults are just as smart as ever. 

What does this weird scattershot of results tell us? Big Think recently did a deep dive into all the recent science and came back with an encouraging answer: Norway and its neighbors probably haven't really gotten dumber. They've just hit maximum smartness.

The Scandinavian nations have succeeded in giving all their citizens, regardless of background, a quality education. In these countries there are just no more IQ gains to be gotten by better schools because pretty much everyone already goes to a good school. 

"Scandinavian countries support more advanced educational systems. These education systems may have reached a theoretical limit in their ability 'to produce graduates that can generalize and use logic on the hypothetical (mental abilities that pay dividends on IQ tests),'" explains Big Think, quoting one relevant study. These countries "may have also leveled the educational attainment between citizens of different classes. Quality education reaches everybody."

The same cannot be said about the U.S. and South Korea, which is why we should expect IQ scores to continue to go up assuming access to quality education (hopefully) improves. 

Talent may be constant. The ability to fully develop it isn't. 

Scientists will no doubt continue arguing about what exactly all the data on IQ is telling us for quite some time. But in the meantime, the latest studies offer some comfort to those of us worried we'd somehow built an environment that makes people dumber. Instead, it looks like the steady rise in IQ was mostly down not to people being born with ever greater cognitive gifts, but instead reflected societies' increasingly successful attempts to fully realize the potential of all their citizens. 

That's both a relief and a rallying cry. You can rest easier that the invention of Cheetos, the iPhone, or Twitter probably isn't somehow harming our collective intelligence (our democracy and well being are still up for debate). On the other hand, these results underline that the Flynn Effect isn't some unbreakable law of the universe. 

Societies get smarter as long as they increasingly nurture the gifts of more and more citizens. Backsliding is totally possible. So if we want our kids to live in a smarter world than the one we grew up in, we must continue to struggle to offer more and more people access to the support and education they need to develop their full potential. 

Published on: Jun 27, 2019
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