The Flynn Effect for Fluid IQ May Not Generalize to All Ages or Ability Levels: A Population-Based Study of 10,000 US Adolescents

Intelligence. Nov-Dec 2019;77:101385. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2019.101385. Epub 2019 Sep 10.


Generational changes in IQ (the Flynn Effect) have been extensively researched and debated. Within the US, gains of 3 points per decade have been accepted as consistent across age and ability level, suggesting that tests with outdated norms yield spuriously high IQs. However, findings are generally based on small samples, have not been validated across ability levels, and conflict with reverse effects recently identified in Scandinavia and other countries. Using a well-validated measure of fluid intelligence, we investigated the Flynn Effect by comparing scores normed in 1989 and 2003, among a representative sample of American adolescents ages 13-18 (n=10,073). Additionally, we examined Flynn Effect variation by age, sex, ability level, parental age, and SES. Adjusted mean IQ differences per decade were calculated using generalized linear models. Overall the Flynn Effect was not significant; however, effects varied substantially by age and ability level. IQs increased 2.3 points at age 13 (95% CI=2.0, 2.7), but decreased 1.6 points at age 18 (95% CI=-2.1, -1.2). IQs decreased 4.9 points for those with IQ<70 (95% CI=-4.9, -4.8), but increased 3.5 points among those with IQ>130 (95% CI=3.4, 3.6). The Flynn Effect was not meaningfully related to other background variables. Using the largest sample of US adolescent IQs to date, we demonstrate significant heterogeneity in fluid IQ changes over time. Reverse Flynn Effects at age 18 are consistent with previous data, and those with lower ability levels are exhibiting worsening IQ over time. Findings by age and ability level challenge generalizing IQ trends throughout the general population.

Keywords: Flynn effect; adolescence; intellectual disabilities; intelligence.