»  National Review Online

April 26, 2001

  It's Complicated


Mine is only the second generation of males in my family to wear underpants. I wear them, and my Dad wore them. Neither of my grandfathers did, though. They wore shirts with long tails. Before putting on their pants, they tucked the shirt tails round underneath to establish the desideratum — apparently universal in pants-wearing cultures — of having something between pants and fundament.

More than you wanted to know? I'm sorry. I have been reading about this new study in Psychological Review that attempts to explain the Flynn effect. Noticed as far back as the 1930s, but first researched in detail by psychologist James R. Flynn in the 1980s, this is the curious phenomenon of average IQ scores drifting upward over the years. "Drifting" is a bit inadequate, in fact: there has been a rise of 24 points in the U.S. since 1918, 27 points in Britain, and comparable rises in other countries. Now, 24 points on standard IQ tests is the difference between "average" and "very smart," so the Flynn effect seems to say that the average Joe of today is as smart, insofar as IQ tests measure smartness, as a very smart person — a candidate for postgraduate study, say — in 1918.

This is not the proper place for a discussion of the Flynn effect, which all the leading researchers, of all shades of opinion, seem to find baffling. What set me thinking about underpants was a discussion in Newsweek about the causes of the effect. Flynn himself has suggested that one of the things that has been lifting all IQ boats since our grandfathers' time is the much richer and more challenging environment our minds must deal with. We travel more; we have more, and more complicated, gadgets; we do more intellectually difficult work. And, of course, we just have far more stuff to cope with — including, in the case of Derbyshire males, underwear. "Leisure and even ordinary conversation are more cognitively demanding today," says Flynn.

Flynn is undoubtedly right about this. The sheer increase in compexity of our lives over the past generation has been astonishing. In England 40 years ago, my father was paid, in cash, every Thursday, and was broke by the following Wednesday. He had a quarterly gas bill and a quarterly electricity bill. He paid weekly rent on a property owned by the town. Since he did not believe in life insurance, own a bank account or invest in the stock market, that was the entire extent of his financial concerns. He read one newspaper, Cecil King's Daily Mirror. He had two TV channels available to him, both of course black and white. He owned one suit, and I think no more than three sets of underwear. My wife, growing up in mainland China in the 1960s, had an even more spare existence. She had just one toy, which of course she adored.

Now look at us. I have just spent three days doing my income taxes. My financial affairs — the affairs of a modest working family — occupy an entire drawer in a set of filing cabinets. (Filing cabinets! In my house!) Never mind a generation: just in the past eight years I have gone from having one telephone bill to having five: one for a wireless service and two for fixed lines — each of which, for reasons I cannot be bothered to understand, is served by both Verizon and AT&T. With the help of the Internet I read, or at least skim through, about twenty newspapers or news-websites every morning, ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Taipei Times. My house contains four working computers. My kids' bedrooms are silted up with toys, to which they pay little attention. When we take them to McDonald's, their place-mats are decked out with puzzles, mazes and word games. A stimulating environment? You could say so.

Also one I am getting a bit fed up with. It's not just me, either. I know a Manhattan lady of a certain age. She comes from a good family in the tidewater South, and for many years was married to a gentleman of modest wealth and great respectability. Unfortunately he died suddenly and she was left alone — they had no children. Now the bane of her life is paperwork. "I simply can't cope," she moans, every time I see her. "I don't have a clue about his affairs. I go to the attorney, I go to the accountant, and they say: 'You can do this, or you can do this, or you can do this. What do you want to do?' I tell them: 'I don't know. What's best?' Then they start in with all this babble about growth funds and value funds, liens and trusts and defeasances … It just makes my head spin. Why does everything have to be so complicated? It seems you need an MBA just to get through life nowadays."

Not all aspects of our lives have moved in the direction of increasing complexity. Kingsley Amis, in a good English secondary school in the 1930s, was required to compose Latin verse, a thing not expected of any adolescents I am currently acquainted with. Some of the college kids who fill their leisure hours with Doom and Ultimate Frisbee nowadays would have been playing Bridge forty years ago. The elaborate sumptuary codes of the middle and upper classes in former times have mostly been jettisoned. ("This is very good port they have given me," remarked Gladstone to the adolescent Bertrand Russell, "but why have they given it me in a claret glass?") Even further back, 18th-century arithmetic textbooks were filled with exercises in converting from Massachusetts currency to Rhode Island currency, a complication which, thanks to Alexander Hamilton, we do not have to trouble ourselves with today. On balance, though, Flynn is right: our everyday lives have become much more intellectually demanding, and the trend line is upwards.

Some of this complexity arises from new freedoms we have gained, and must be not only accepted, but applauded. "You can do this, or you can do this, or you can do this. What do you want to do?" But why is it a lawyer or an accountant asking the question? Because doing this as opposed to that has tax and legal ramifications that only experts can understand. My lady friend probably has more choices than she can easily handle, but the real source of her perplexity is that the consequences of her choices can all too easily bring her to the attention of the IRS or the courts, with potentially devastating impacts on her time, money, and perhaps even liberty.

I therefore suggest that the stimulating environment of modern life that is, according to Dr. Flynn, pushing our IQs up, has a private aspect that we should welcome, and a public one we should deplore. Choosing from among forty-four different breakfast cereals, or solving the puzzles on a McDonald's place-mat, are intellectually stimulating tasks, but not otherwise stressful. Dealing with a 46,000-page Internal Revenue Code is positively dangerous, unless you are an expert. Wise law-makers could do a great deal to simplify our lives, and the outline blueprints for this simplification have been written: for the law, Richard Epstein's Simple Rules for a Complex World, and for taxes, Amity Shlaes's The Greedy Hand.

But then, if we were to make our lives simpler, would we not, according to Dr. Flynn's researches, get dumber? Yes, we would. We know, with reasonable certainty, three things about IQ scores: they are 70-80 per cent determined by genes; a stimulating environment can raise them; and when the stimulation is removed, they sink back to their original levels (which is why Head Start doesn't work). Personally, I would be willing to see my IQ drop a few points if it meant I could get some of my time back, especially around mid-April — and provided I can go on wearing underpants.