I've asked a similar question some time ago and people mentioned the "Flynn effect".

But after watching this video from James Flynn I'm having doubts about the relevance of IQ tests.

In short, that guy says that our grandparents are more inclined towards concrete thought, while we're leaning towards hypothetical thought. And if you take a look at the IQ tests, they are all made of hypothetical questions.

And he is right, I've tested it on my grandmother, and she cannot even conceive some hypothetical situations. Her answer is always "don't be silly, why would that happen?" :)

So my question is - are we getting smarter if we're moving away from concrete thinking? The examples from the video, with the war lies are pretty accurate. The governments tell us that we should fear "terrorists", because of hypothetical events which sound plausible.

However, there is no concrete evidence that these events happened in the past at all. In fact, all their previous warnings turned out to be lies. If we were to use concrete thinking, we would assume these are likely lies as well. Doesn't this make us naive?

  • 6
    Is this question intended to be a discussion of what the word "smarter" means? Or, about the "relevance" of IQ tests? Or (to quote your sentences which include a question mark), whether our alleged "moving away from concrete thinking" makes us more "naive", and whether "naive" implies "less smart"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 19:47
  • possible duplicate of Are people getting smarter or stupider in North America?
    – user5582
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 23:16

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: hypotheses are necessary but are not sufficient.

So my question is - are we really getting smarter if we're moving away from concrete thinking?

You might be mis-stating the conclusion of his lecture.

Until the end of first 7 minutes he talks about history of IQ tests, specifically the findings of someone whose name sounds like "Luria", who found that people in his time (which was just before they entered "the scientific age") could not answer IQ questions such as:

  • There are no camels in Germany.
  • Hamburg is in Germany.
  • Are there camels in Hamburg?

Their answer was "Maybe, depending on how big Hamburg is": because the respondent had never seen a town without a camel ... they valued their concrete experience (e.g. that camels exist in towns) more than the hypothetical (that there's a country called Germany in which there are no camels).

Until time 11:00 he says that modern jobs are more cognitively demanding than they used to be, but mentions some moral lapses (e.g. that the recent sub-prime mortgage/banking crisis was engineered by "merchant bankers" who "may have been morally remiss but were cognitively very agile").

At time 11:10 he describes himself as a "moral philosopher", not a psychologist, and says that what interests him is "moral debate".

At time 11:35 he begins to say that moral debate can't happen without "taking the hypothetical seriously". The example which he gives of that, is his going home from university in 1955 in the time of MLK and saying to his father (who was born in 1885), "What if you were Black?" His father wouldn't accept the hypothesis and therefore wouldn't sympathize with the reality/experience of being a black person.

So, his principle claims include:

  • We have more education (e.g. 12 years instead of 4)
  • Our education includes more theory
  • We accept hypotheses which are outside our experience
  • This makes us "cognitively agile", which is needed for science and by 'knowledge workers', and helps to enable debate about morality

The last part from about 16:20 says that, "if you're ignorant of history and other countries then you can't do politics", and says that "we" (Americans) have been "lied into 4 of our last 6 wars".

IMO the principle claim is not that 'being able to accept the hypothetical as a hypothesis makes you less smart'. On the contrary: that ability is important for science, for modern jobs, and for morality ("moral debate"). However, agility (the ability to hypothesize) is not sufficient: you also need to know facts ... historical facts.

"We've noticed a trend among young Americans that they read less history and less literature and less material about foreign lands. They're essentially ahistorical. ... Think of how different America would be, if every American knew that this is the fifth time Western armies had gone to Afghanistan to put its house in order, and if they had some idea of what had happened on those four previous occasions: and that is they had barely left and there wasn't a trace in the sand."

The governments tell us that we should fear "terrorists" or whatever, because of hypothetical events which sound plausible. However there is no concrete evidence that these events happened in the past at all. In fact, all their previous warnings turned out to be lies.

There /is/ some historical evidence that some "terrorist" events have happened (for example).

I say that, without wanting to draw unwarranted conclusions from it: "unwarranted conclusions" such as, "we're at risk", or that going or not going to war is a good idea.

The "lie" was w.r.t. whether Al-Quaeda and Iraq (Sadam Hussein) were related.

Doesn't this make us naive?

Not wanting to end on a pessimistic note, his conclusion was that the "20th century shows enormous cognitive reserves of ordinary people that we have now realized" and that the "aristocracy used to be convinced that the average person couldn't make it and that they could never share their mind-set or their cognitive abilities" (see also for example, Has it only been about two hundred years since women gained access to literacy?).

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