The Flynn Effect & Expanded Perspectives

The Flynn Effect is the phenomenon of people improving on IQ tests over time. There has been a steady improvement in performance on IQ tests throughout human history, suggesting that people are getting smarter over time.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that this is also making us less violent as a species. Pinker writes, “The cognitive skill that is most enhanced in the Flynn Effect, abstraction from the concrete particulars of immediate experience, is precisely the skill that must be exercised to take the perspectives of others and expand the circle of moral consideration.”
Pinker’s argument is that humans are more pacifistic when they can view the world through other people’s lenses. When we are able to adopt perspectives beyond our own, when we can recognize that people think differently and have different experiences regarding the world, we can view them and their behaviors with more nuance. We are less likely to view people who don’t speak our language or share our customs as barbarians and savages. We are more capable of viewing people as victims of circumstance rather than as degenerates and moral failures. Taking the perspectives of others expands our moral considerations.
But perspective taking is hard. You have to put your own thoughts, feelings, and desires aside and consider what another person may want or feel. It requires abstract reasoning and an expanded understanding of the world. It requires a recognition that you cannot know everything, because you cannot fully take on the specific experiences of another person. You have to step into the unknown and make predictions about complex mental states. Increased intelligence, according to Pinker, helps this process. A result of increasing intelligence is that we can better view the world through other people’s perspectives, and consequentially we have a greater moral consideration of what is good, bad, fair, and unfair. This reduces our violent tendencies by allowing us to think more carefully about our actions and behaviors toward others.

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