So although working memory training was somewhat of a fad (and I guess some benefits did come out of training, like improved attention/executive function), reviews such as Melby-Lervåg et al. (2016) show that even though WMC changes, fluid intelligence does not through WM training.

I'm wondering if there's any evidence out there that fluid intelligence can change. If so, are there any proven interventions that can change fluid intelligence; or are we still looking for those interventions with the trust that something will prove successful in terms of fluid intelligence improvement?

Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of “far transfer” evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(4), 512-534. [PDF]

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    $\begingroup$ There are lots of things which can impair intelligence, and taking actions which avoid or fix those problems improves intelligence. Therefore it's malleable. $\endgroup$
    – Tanath
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ I'm having the most difficult time understanding fluid knowledge. That's really not how are brains work. When we're presented with a new problem absent facts our brain search its vast banks of information for similarities and starts from there. Definition I've found in my quick search, Fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning is the capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of any knowledge from the past.[2] It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ You might be interested in this study and practice it here (free). There is still more research to be done. $\endgroup$
    – R891
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ This looks like a duplicate to me - for example, see psychology.stackexchange.com/q/4175/7001 and psychology.stackexchange.com/q/17759/7001 $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'm guessing you mean in adulthood. Otherwise the answer is a trivial yes. And even then... "can change" in the downward direction is trivial even then, from any number of brain lesions. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 21:07

1 Answer 1


Is there any evidence of malleability of fluid intelligence?

In the downward direction, definitely yes.

There are many ways you can directly pull fluid intelligence downwards. Things like being exposed to much lead, suffering from iodine deficiency (especially a developing fetus during pregnancy, see e.g. (Qian et al, 2005)), or by not getting decent nutrition. Anything that interferes with a healthy development of the brain might be implicated in intelligence. Similarly, you could presumably push intelligence downward by directly harming the brain (Brain lesions, anyone?). Fluid intelligence also lowers with ageing (Whitley et al, 2016), and so anything that slows down the ageing process may also have an effect.

Next, let's consider the more interesting question:

Besides avoiding decreases in fluid intelligence, can we push it up?

There does not seem to be a reliable way of increasing intelligence known (as of yet), perhaps except for one.

Here we have to turn to Richard Haier, the editor-in-chief of the journal Intelligence, as he has written extensively on this topic. Perhaps disappointingly, we refer to his article Increased Intelligence is a Myth (So Far). The title says it all. He goes into details with the difficulties of establishing increased intelligence. You need to show that you're not just raising test scores, but actually something that transfers over to general intelligence. He also goes into further detail regarding the topic of increasing intelligence in his book The Neuroscience of Intelligence.

To truly appreciate the difficulty of increasing intelligence, you really need to understand the history of methods being suggested. This also helps you develop a healthy amount of scepticism -- you should not believe any method without a substantial amount of evidence backing it up. What has been suggested to increase intelligence? First, the Mozart effect. Meta-analyses show no convincing effect especially when you consider the evidence of publication bias (Pietschnig et al, 2010). The second craze was memory training as you've already noted. Again, not convincing (Melby-Lervåg et al, 2016). Similarly, chess training has been suggested as a way of improving intelligence, but the results are not great (Sala & Gobet, 2017). Now the craze is video games, although it suffers from many of the same methodological issues: (very) small sample sizes, and probably publication bias.

While people can cite all kinds of studies showing increases in intelligence, the real question is really whether these can withstand hard scientific scrutiny.

It is likely not impossible to raise intelligence. Haier suggests some plausible ways of increasing intelligence in his book, but no massive evidence yet. Currently there does not seem to be a very convincing way of increasing intelligence...

...Perhaps except for one way?

Education has been suggested as a candidate for improving intelligence. There is a question whether education really increases general intelligence or just specific skills (Ritchie, Bates, Deary, 2015), but currently education is the best bet (Ritchie & Tucker-Drob, Preprint 2017). Ritchie and Tucker-Drob report the following:

Education appears to be the most consistent, robust, and durable method yet to be identified for raising intelligence.

However, even here we should withhold some scepticism. First, it may simply be increases of specific skills. Secondly, the fadeout effect is pervasive in psychological research of intelligence. Intelligence increases do not seem to last. For example, massive programs such as Head Start showed some initial increases in intelligence measurements, but this boost eventually fades out (Protzko, 2015).

Like Head Start, other programs have been created with the purpose of increasing school performance. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program Gates Effective Teaching Initiative did not see the benefits it hoped.

It might also be hypothesized that expensive private schools would improve the intelligence of the pupils (beyond regular schools). It is well known that pupils of these private schools show higher average scores, but the question is: is it because of the schools? These schools are also highly selective; the pupils attending these expensive private schools are not representative of the general population. This has been tested in at least one large sample. They found that after controlling for factors involved in prior pupil selection, there remained no statistical difference (Smith-Woolley,..., Kovas, Plomin, 2018). In other words, they found that expensive private schools did not demonstrate improvements in intelligence beyond what ordinary schools did.

In fact, all of this goes back to Arthur Jensen's infamous 1969 paper How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement, which made intelligence research controversial if it wasn't already. He concluded already back then that teaching intervention did not show noticeable improvements. Jensen's opening line in his long paper:

Compensatory education has been tried and it apparently has failed.

So currently, if education can increase intelligence it does not appear to be through teaching intervention, but simply through longer education.


  • Many methods for increasing intelligence have been suggested. They tend to not withstand proper scientific scrutiny.
  • Therefore, it is important to have some healthy scepticism to suggested methods, and accept them only when a high evidential threshold has been reached.
  • Currently, the most backed up way of increasing intelligence is through longer education. However, even here it is not certain, and more research is needed to understand the relationship between education and intelligence.
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, but I'm not convinced about the causal direction of education. That is, intelligence -> better grades -> more years in education -> better paying job -> assortative mating (your partner is also smart) -> intelligent children + more resources -> ... Can you find any studies on "educational interventions" that may have improved IQ scores briefly, before they reverted back to average. $\endgroup$
    – faustus
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @faustus Very good observation, and that's why you should never simply conclude 'More educated people have higher intelligence, therefore education increases intelligence.' That would clearly be fallacious. However, the Ritchie & Tucker-Drob (2017) paper doesn't do that. They use quasi-experimental studies. They looked, for example, at datasets of places where regions have changed their mandatory education duration and compared to those regions that hadn't increased duration yet. It is a paper that is worth reading. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @faustus By the way, I've added some information regarding "educational interventions" and their results, and on the problems of fadeout. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ good answer. in any of your readings, did you find any practical benefit to brain training, if even no increase in intelligence? $\endgroup$
    – faustus
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ @faustus Unfortunately, I haven't properly evaluated the claims of gains other than intelligence. I'm mostly well-versed in the intelligence literature. Therefore, I can't properly speak to whether there are other gains such as better attention-span or whatever. One thing I would say regarding training. The intelligence literature seems to point in the direction that training is good for locally improving abilities, but difficult to generalize. Therefore, for example, memory training tests may very well actually help for memory and closely related abilities. Just not general intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:44

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