In the early 1980s, the Japanese economic model was Topic A in the United States. Seemingly out of nowhere, the nation we defeated in World War II was coming on strong with high-quality automobiles and consumer electronics. American business felt threatened, while the country’s media became fascinated by Japanese management systems and educational techniques.
In September 1982 Discover weighed in with a provocative cover story: “IQ: Are the Japanese Really Smarter?” The magazine reported on three studies that looked into differences between American and Japanese cognitive abilities. Two of them, both at the University of Michigan, found no significant differences. But one, originally published in Nature by British psychologist Richard Lynn, found that “fully 77 percent of the Japanese have IQs above Western European and U.S. averages.” Those born after World War II, he said, were 11 points ahead of their American counterparts.
Lynn’s study set off a firestorm in academic and scientific journals. “The results again brought to a boil the long-standing debate about intelligence: Is it largely inherited or most strongly influenced by environment?” wrote Mayo Mohs, author of the Discover article. “They also called into question the validity of using IQ scores in comparing the mental capacity of races and nationality groups. Are the Japanese inherently smarter than Americans? Or do they simply use their intelligence more effectively to test better?”
The flap surprised Lynn, now retired. “I didn’t anticipate that it would reverberate,” he says. Today the debate seems moot. Douglas Detterman, editor of Intelligence, says scientists have more interesting questions about intelligence and IQ scores to ponder. For example, he says, scores are increasing worldwide at the steady rate of 3 points per decade. “The question is why this occurs,” Detterman says. “And the answer is, nobody knows.”