This effect has been observed across cultures, although in varying degrees. You would have come across people, or even you might have noticed that nowadays children are more intelligent or quick to absorb a new concept. This noticeable difference between generations has been scientifically put forth by Flynn and several other researchers.
James R. Flynn was the first person to systematically classify the IQ level comparison between successive generations. He is a political scientist from New Zealand, who put forth this observation, although it was substantiated by various other psychologists and academicians.
The phenomenon whereby the members of the younger generations fair better in intelligence quotient than their predecesors, and members of the older generation, is known as the Flynn Effect.
The Flynn Effect
A standard IQ test administered to people from various generations has conclusively proved the fact that there has been a linear and uninterrupted increase in the average human intellectual capabilities. These test scores were normalized for every study being conducted. Normalization gives the average score for a particular group of people.
The same test was administered to the next generation and the normalized result was compared with the previous test. The results have confirmed a higher intelligence quotient (IQ) level. According to Flynn, these effects are due to a combination of factors which undergo a drastic change with each successive generation.
The cognitive psychology of a succeeding generation has a lot of stimulation for the abstract mind, and hence a better interpretative ability to assimilate these ideas. This demands a lot of thinking and reasoning from an average human brain.
A simple example can be the scientific advancement which has undergone a sea of change. A person now in his 40s had limited access to technological inventions, the web, or mobile communication in his childhood.
In stark contrast to this, consider his son born in the 90s, who is quite adept and comfortable using these advancements. Even though he is using these technologies unknowingly, (his brain comprehends more facts than what his father's did, at his age) the average effort put in by his brain to understand a particular system is higher than his father's brain.
This can be due to variety of reasons like better nutrition, large-scale exposure to many concepts at a relatively tender age, interactive media and so on.
The Flynn effect is more evident in a rapidly developing country like India. The prior generation had a relatively easier access to its premier educational institutions, as the number of applicants for the seats was relatively less.
India's economy, health facilities, exposure to new facets of development and various such parameters have risen at a much faster pace in the past decade. This has created a huge demand for skilled professionals and an increased awareness among its burgeoning middle class about the importance of getting into premier institutes.
Thus, although the intake has been increased negligibly, there has been an astounding rise in the number of students clearing the tests. This, despite the fact that the entrance tests have increased their difficulty level, which reiterates the fact that the general level has increased for a given set of population.
This was an example of what the Flynn effect tried to suggest. However, there have been certain contradictory studies emerging, which undermine the effect to a certain extent.
For example, researchers Herrnstein and Murray had a theory which states that the Flynn effect is not observed for all levels of ability, and in fact it's more predominantly observed in people with low abilities. In other words, people with low IQ levels have demonstrated a noticeable rise in their abilities as compared to higher IQ people.
Thus, for instance, people with learning disabilities might show a steep rise in IQ in accordance with the Flynn effect, but the same change might not be observed for people with a higher IQ. It is a characteristic of the lower segment of IQ and not clearly demonstrated in people with better cognitive abilities.
There have been studies like the one conducted by Teasdale and Owen in Denmark, which suggest the end or stagnation of the Flynn effect. In their assessment of Danish youth for the period from 1959 to 2004, the progression seemed to have reached a plateau and receded. The latest performance pattern was pretty similar to that observed before 1990.
The Flynn effect explains the rise in general IQ level over a period of time. But in order to successfully establish the credibility of this effect, more research and a generalized study by different researchers needs to be done.