Why Smart People Make Great Addicts

Why Smart People Make Great Addicts

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Intelligent People Can’t Outsmart Late Nights or Drug Abuse

This post was originally published on September 8, 2016.

Apparently, highly intelligent people aren’t so smart when it comes to sleep schedules or substance abuse. According to a recent Business Insider article, there’s mounting evidence that those with high IQs are more inclined than others to stay up super-late and experiment with illegal drugs. They enjoy being alone when they do it, too. In other words, smart people make great addicts. Over the years, studies have almost gone out of their way to prove intelligent people have more problems than others. They drink alcohol more. They lie more often. They’re lonelier and more depressed. Researchers continue to find links between intellect and self-damaging behavior, which suggests that the greater someone’s cognitive ability, the greater the chances that they’ll be night owls who suffer with addiction issues.

Intelligent, Not Necessarily Smarter

People who score high on IQ tests are very often their own worst enemies. There are plenty of brand-new studies that connect intelligence and drug abuse, but some of the oldest research out there are actually the most convincing. A 1958 National Child Development survey, for example, concluded that “high childhood IQ test scores have been associated with increased alcohol dependency and use in adult life.” Researchers didn’t arrive at that conclusion quickly, either. Quite the opposite. Nearly 7,000 people from the United Kingdom participated in the survey, where they had their IQ tested at 11 years and were then questioned about illegal drug use a full 31 years later. (Yes, you read that right: 31 years.) It’s a unique, wide-angle view of what role intelligence plays in alcoholism and drug addiction. “A high childhood IQ,” the 1958 study eventually concluded, “may prompt the adoption of behaviors that are potentially harmful to health.”

Experts also draw parallels between childhood IQ and staying up into the wee hours of the morning. One study contends that “night owls are more intelligent,” citing data that teenagers who stayed up later and slept into mid-morning scored better on IQ tests than those who didn’t. A similar study among US military recruits said essentially the same thing: the early birds were catching worms, not IQ scores in the 100’s. In other words, smart people don’t follow the “early to bed, early to rise” mantra. Among the US Air Force recruits who were evaluated, the study claimed that “contrary to conventional folk wisdom, evening-types are more likely to have higher intelligence scores.” Unfortunately, being smart isn’t the same as knowing what’s best for you.

Better Off Alone?

In theory, intelligent people doing dumb things doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But one evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, believes the answer lies in what’s known as the “savanna-IQ interaction hypothesis.” It’s a complicated name with a very simple premise: intelligent people aren’t scared off by new things. Smarter people are more curious (if dangerously so) about trying out things that have “evolutionary novelty” to them. Kanazawa argues that “more intelligent individuals are more likely to consume all types of psychoactive drugs than less intelligent individuals” because those drugs are relatively new to humankind. Smarter people, Kanazawa suggests, have more evolved brains that, therefore, pursue new things. Unfortunately, “new things” can often mean cocaine, ecstasy or designer drugs.

Intelligent people, however, have brains that can handle changes and stimuli easier—especially when everyone else is asleep. “Our caveman ancestors didn’t yet have access to modern drugs or alcohol, and they did most of their activity during the day,” the Business Insider story observed. “So drugs and late-night events are less intimidating for smart people, who aren’t as fazed by unfamiliarity.” Smart people also do better with being alone. The savanna theory says that most people enjoy being around other people—a trait that also harkens back to our caveman need for community. “Humans used to live in communities of about 150 people, so when we’re in environments where the population exceeds that number, we’re not as comfortable or happy,” the article noted. That said, smart people just aren’t wired that way. Study results indicated that “results showed that the more intelligent people socialized with friends, the less satisfied they were with life.” It’s a trend that means if you’re a smart drug user, your problems aren’t as easy to spot.

Too Smart For Your Own Good?

When all the streetlights, storefront and highway signs flicker on, so do some people’s brains. They don’t come alive until the sun goes down. (A friend of mine calls this “the neon disease.”) Apparently, smart people are similarly affected. “More intelligent children are more likely to grow up to be nocturnal adults who go to bed late and wake up late on both weekdays and weekends,” one paper said. Being a smart night owl doesn’t necessarily mean you’re better off, though. A Brazilian sleep study showed that “evening people had less emotional control, focus coping skills, and caution than morning people.” They were also less inhibited than people who preferred going to bed and getting up earlier. In addition to being reckless, irritable and generally miserable human beings to be around, people who stay up late are also far more likely to suffer from depression and heart disease. Those are some pretty steep tradeoffs—especially when many experts agree that people who wake up early are more positioned to be successful in life. The human brain could be wired to burn the midnight oil as much as it’s wired to burn itself out on drugs.

Staying up late, burning mental calories, being alone—those are the classic hallmarks of drug addiction. I’m not saying I’m the smartest cat on the planet, but I’ve wasted innumerable wee hours in the glow of a computer screen, alone with a bottle of Smirnoff, writing pages and pages no one will ever read. And when I wasn’t writing, I was watching YouTube at three am (full disclosure: between all the TED lectures I zoned out to, there was a lot of Keyboard Cat). I certainly fit the bill of an alcoholic and addict who spent way too much time alone, up way past my bedtime and mentally spinning out for no reason. Being intelligent and being an addict cuts both ways. I don’t know on which side I fall, but I need to always remind myself that the line is there. And at the end of the day—literally—smart people may simply find it impossible to outsmart their own struggles.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.