The Psychology of Spamming, Part 6 – The Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect

Some of the most phished brands are Paypal, HSBC, Bank of America, Facebook, and eBay. All of these sites have security policies set up on their home pages and they are all fairly similar – they use education as a means of informing their user base about what techniques they will never use to contact their customers and how to recognize phishing scams. While they all engage in some of the techniques above to counter phishing, they all consider education a central focus in user education.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, psychological researcher James Flynn discovered that the scores of IQ tests of the general population was increasing over time – about 3 IQ points per decade. This was consistent across all decades and across all demographics, even those in foreign countries, including the developed and undeveloped world. To Flynn, it looked like the world was getting smarter.

Flynn was puzzled by this effect. Was the world truly getting smarter? If so, then by working backwards it would suggest that people 60 years ago, when compared to today, were incredibly unintelligent and hardly even functional.

There are various theories for the Flynn Effect.

  1. Better education – One theory is that through better education programs, people have gotten smarter. However, this is contradicted by evidence showing that academic progress has not improved steadily at the same rate as intelligence scores.
  2. Improved nutrition - Improved nutrition is another explanation. Today's average adult from an industrialized nation is taller than a comparable adult of a century ago. Available data suggest that these gains have been accompanied by analogous increases of head size, and presumably by an increase of the average size of the brain. However, groups who tend to be of smaller overall body size (e.g. women, people of Asian ancestry) do not show lower average IQs. It is also unlikely that the speed of increase across everyone is explained by nutrition alone.
  3. Flynn’s theory - Flynn decided to put forth a theory to explain the effect. He likened it to shifting priorities in society and uses a sports analogy. If people are going to excel at sports and start to train more intensely and put themselves on better nutritional plans, then people will become better at more sports than their ancestors.

    Yet if we also decide that the 100-m sprint is the most exciting sport and more training and resources are directed at excelling in this sport, then the most advances will be made in sprinting. To be sure, there will be advances in other sports, but sprinting is the one that will make the biggest gains.

And so today, as technology has evolved, so have we as a society. Our mental priorities have changed over time. Our problem solving skills have become less attached to the concrete and more applied to finding abstract similarities (Question: how are dogs and rabbits alike? Answer: they are both mammals). The reason we do better on IQ tests is because we are getting better at thinking about abstract concepts.

This was not a priority for our ancestors. They needed to work in factories in order to generate a living and running machines, not higher education, was the priority. Yet as society evolved and technology shifted, we, too, had to shift. Perhaps we haven’t shifted as fast as technology, but the effect is observable and measurable. Because of this, we understand computers better. Children born today have advantages that they didn’t have 50 years ago. Abstract concepts that children today grasp could not have been nearly as easily grasped by children 50 years ago because societal priorities were different 50 years ago.

Flynn’s theory is what represents the hope of the fight against financial scams. As we become familiar with financial websites and people start to become familiar with phishing, 419 scams, and so forth, it will eventually start to become ingrained into us. We will eventually learn to recognize these with greater ease because societal priorities will put things like online banking and email at the center of our daily lives.

Greater intelligence allows us to recognize patterns easier and this will include patterns of abuse. As we become more used to technology we will also become more used to detecting scams and abnormal behavior – the education efforts phished brands have been investing will eventually start to pay off. Furthermore, technology will also speed up the process and distribution at which we can foster education, which will allow us to grasp abstract concepts. We will still have to deal with the dopamine released by our limbic system, but we will get better at controlling our response.

Technology is what allowed miscreants to make abuse widespread, but it is also technology that will eventually lead to these techniques becoming obsolete.

A Word of Caution

Lest we all start to think that the future looks bright, we must be mindful that technology will continue to evolve and progress. As it progresses, there will be new avenues for attack that spammers and their ilk will continue to exploit. In response, the security community will have come up with new mitigations to counter the threats. As time passes, the general public will start to catch up.

New trends are where fortunes are made. Human evolution has a very strong built-in infrastructure upon which malicious advertisers can prey upon, giving them an inherent advantage. This give-and-take model will continue long into the future, and whether or not technology can combat it effectively is still undecided. We can be certain, however, that it is likely to continue long into the future.


Spam works. Financial related spam also works, and the reason it works is because the emotional responses that it invokes are hard wired into our brains. We are biologically predisposed to respond certain ways to certain stimuli, and when malicious actors start to prey on those same emotional responses, they can get us to act in ways that we might not normally respond. It’s not that we are lacking in intelligence, but rather, the environment in which our brains evolved is quite different than in what we live in today. We are not optimized to live in a world where threats can be disguised as things that we trust.

Fortunately, we do have some tools in place to lessen the impact of the threats. We will never be able to eradicate them completely. However, through the use of technology, we can impede spammers’ efforts to deceive us. And over time, as the population becomes more adapted to the environment in which we live, we will also become better at recognizing malicious players. The types of scams that work today have a shelf life and that clock is ticking. Time does move slowly, too slow for many of us, but it does march inexorably onwards.

The End.

Part 1 - How our brains work
Part 2 - The Limbic system, cognition and affect
Part 3 - External factors that influence our decisions
Part 4 - Why we fall for scams
Parr 5 - Solutions
Part 6 - The Flynn Effect

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