Visualcy, the Flynn Effect, and the End of Abstract Reasoning

One of the occasional but regular themes around here has been something I’ve called “visualcy”. A quick summary of the hypothesis is that, just as orality was supplanted by literacy, visualcy, a reliance for information on visual imagery of different sorts, is replacing literacy as the primary way by which most people receive information and, just as literacy produced cognitive and behavior changes in people, so will visualcy. In a recent article at Reason.com, Michael Shermer, citing the “Flynn effect”, wonders if we’re “becoming morally smarter”:

If the moral Flynn effect is real-and I think it is-the implications for the future of humanity are encouraging as we continue expanding the moral sphere along with the abstract complexity of our technologies and culture.

It’s hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us. Their attitudes about race and gender sure seem morally moronic to us today, but does that mean in another half century our descendants will look at us with equal moral dumbfoundedness? Surely we’ve learned some things that will carry civilization forward and that are grounded in relatively permanent principles, such as equal rights for everyone. I believe we have.

The “Flynn effect”, a secular increase in IQs, was named for the psychologist, political scientist, and activist James R. Flynn who documented it. It posits that over the last century or so IQs, as measured by ordinary IQ tests, have risen on a regular basis. As Mr. Shermer notes, that has occurred almost entirely due to improvements in abstract reasoning. He then draws a link that I find suspicious between the rise in IQ scores and moral improvement as evidenced by greater rights for women and minorities.

Unfortunately, although he dances around it, Mr. Shermer fails to identify the actual processes involved. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a demonstrated causal relationship between literacy and abstract reasoning. The causality moves from literacy to improvements in abstract reasoning to increases in IQ.

Recent research has suggested that the “Flynn effect” ended in 1975 and may even have reversed. That supports the visualcy hypothesis: as people increasingly derive their information through visual means abstract reasoning ability actually decreases along with a host of other cognitive and behavioral effects, as I’ve catalogued in previous posts.

In my view the sheer volume of information with which we’re being deluged strongly suggests that visualcy will only increase and as it does the very things we’ve noticed over the last several years—an increase in reflexive “tribalism” and more agonistic modes of expression.

17 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    Prof. Flynn appears to agree with you:

    “Over time, changing social priorities alter the cognitive demands made on our minds. For example, society may want more and more people to put on scientific spectacles so they can understand the world rationally through education. IQ tests like Similarities and Raven’s pick this up as enhanced performance. Yet, thanks to a more visual culture, society may not require us to enlarge our vocabularies – meaning no higher scores on the WISC vocabulary subtest. These trends are of great significance. If you dismiss these trends because they do not tally with the various tests’ g-loadings, you miss all of that. G rather than social significance has become your criterion of what is important.”

    10 Questions for James Flynn

  • PD Shaw

    I find the moral triumphalism of the present pretty off-putting. But as I understand Pinker’s argument which the linked piece alludes to, violence has declined across the world and he attributes the forces of reason and detached cognitive skills. I am not sure that I disagree, but I don’t think violence is the only relevant metric, and if many of us are becoming more materially prosperous, the returns on violence decline simply as a matter of self-interest.

  • Guarneri

    “He then draws a link that I find suspicious between the rise in IQ scores and moral improvement as evidenced by greater rights for women and minorities.”

    Anytime you are bored and want some fatuous lecturing on the subject thrown at you go on over to OTB and read comments by a children’s book author.

    I gotta go read a book…….

  • Modulo Myself

    Pinker’s argument relied a lot on the growth of population eating up violence, if I remember one of the critiques correctly. Not having read the book, I don’t really know.

  • Modulo Myself

    There’s no reason why visual culture would be less abstract. Interpretive labor is highly visual. It’s basically putting yourself into the mind of the another and seeing yourself through them. There’s nothing more abstract than that. But traditionally, it’s something that a black person would have, or a servant, or a woman. It’s based on necessity and power rather than interest. No generic property owner who ran the manor bothered to examine their lives through the eyes of their servants.

    A lot of the so-called antagonism seems to be rooted in this–one tribe refuses to view themselves through the other tribes’ minds, and the other tribes view themselves through the one tribe’s mind, which makes them completely paranoid and distrustful. Now that women, minorities, and gays have enough power to be able to voice their opinions on what life is like, it’s created a huge problem. And most of the other tribe seems to be on a trajectory to terminal spectrum-based behavior–e.g. bad jokes, witlessness, hack writing, repetition of forlorn ideas, lack of contact with real books and art, and the inability to empathize or grasp the nature of how creepy they are. But since this tribe has a lot of power, there’s a definite reason to be like this.

  • steve

    I have always been a bit skeptical about the Flynn effect. I could certainly see some effects being derived from better nutrition and living conditions. However, beyond that I am dubious. I suspect it is mostly measurement bias and artifact. On the moral side, I am mostly, but not entirely with PD. I think that it is more difficult to sustain moral beliefs and behaviors when we have the science to disprove many false beliefs, and the means to distribute that knowledge.

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    MM: I’ve not read Pinker’s book either, just reviews. But the metric he used was deaths proportionate to population. I recall Tyler Cowen complaining that the Holocaust would not be half as violent with double the world’s population. I found that strange. Almost everybody makes comparative assessment over time based upon population. I could point out any number of recent comments about how the murder rate in the U.S. has been dropping; we don’t look to absolute numbers. The Mongel conquests killed far higher proportion of the world’s population than the NAZIs. That we may still want to judge the NAZIs harsher is probably because we expect less of one than the other.

  • Andy

    Who is this “we” that Shermer talks about? It sounds like he’s talking about the relatively small number of people who live in first-world democracies. Well, yes, “we” have the wealth, security, leisure time and education to not be (comparatively) moral idiots. What about the bulk of humanity?

    As for IQ scores, tests are inherently biased. As the way people think and live changes, test results will inevitably change too. We simply are unable to measure cognitive capacities free from the filters of culture, language, and so on.

    MM,

    “Now that women, minorities, and gays have enough power to be able to voice their opinions on what life is like, it’s created a huge problem. And most of the other tribe seems to be on a trajectory to terminal spectrum-based behavior–e.g. bad jokes, witlessness, hack writing, repetition of forlorn ideas, lack of contact with real books and art, and the inability to empathize or grasp the nature of how creepy they are. ”

    Your ability to distill everything into an American partisan worldview is quite remarkable.

    PD,

    “But as I understand Pinker’s argument which the linked piece alludes to, violence has declined across the world and he attributes the forces of reason and detached cognitive skills. ”

    I’m skeptical. Even if one believes that reason holds back the passion necessary for conflict, there is still the competition for resources, power, and influence, etc.

  • ...

    Michael Shermer, citing the “Flynn effect”, wonders if we’re “becoming morally smarter”

    Wow. That’s an arrogant thought….

  • ...

    A hypothesis that partially explained the Flynn Effect was put forth about 18 months ago. You can find more at the link:

    http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.com/2013/11/flynn-effect-as-retesting-rule-based.html

    It might well be something of an artifact, as steve suggests above.

  • ...

    Interpretive labor is highly visual. It’s basically putting yourself into the mind of the another and seeing yourself through them. There’s nothing more abstract than that.

    Wow.

  • I’d have to disagree, Modulo. Visual perception/data gathering appears to bypass the rational part of the brain, and tap into an earlier, more emotional part of the brain. Less of the cerebral cortex is involved in the processing.

    You still think about the data, you just tend to use more reflexive, less analytical (logical) thinking.

  • Part of the Flynn Effect is that some of the greatest increases have been seen in sub-tests of problem solving that is visual, rather than verbal. So, there is no reason to see a conflict with the Flynn Effect and increasing visual ability.

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