Great Minds, Bad Habits

The great poets that were drunks are legion. The jazzers of the golden age and their affection for the needle is legendary. Freud wrote of his love for cocaine. And then there were the sometimes fatal substance abuses of Dickens, Poe, van Gogh, Churchill, Edison, Presley, and Tchaikovsky.

So many geniuses; so much drug and alcohol abuse: Was it their genius that made them use?

Could be.

High Minded

According a study from Psychology Today1, those with an IQ of 125 or higher are exponentially more likely to use drugs. Interestingly, this isn’t what researchers expected to find. What they expected was something more stereotypical: That stoners are dumber. This turned out not to be true across the board for drug use. Whether their drug of choice be pot, coke, or heroin, statistically those most likely to use had higher IQs.

Other studies found similar results: High IQs in childhood were related to a higher likelihood of illegal drug use as adults.2 Studies going back to 19703 and 1958 also revealed similar results. Of the data, subjects that tested above average on IQ tests at age 5 were twice as likely to have done hard drugs within the past year as adults. And not just pot either, but according to the numbers they were more likely prefer cocaine and ecstasy.

A Finnish study4 found a correlation between intelligence and increased alcohol consumption: Children who developed a speaking ability early tried alcohol earlier and drank more heavily through adolescence. Other studies found that college graduates drink more and that people with higher IQs prefer wine.5

Evolution and Why We Get High

Why do they do it? Blame it on evolution.

Evolutionary novelties: Human intelligence evolved as a way to deal with new things in the environment: To encourage experimenting and create new technologies, you might say. Smart people are the ones most likely to try with these novelties. Going back to the world of our ancient ancestors, these novelties would’ve included intoxicants and drugs like fermented beverages and opium. The use of opium goes back about 5,000 years and alcohol as far back as the Neolithic period of 10,000 years. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa sums this up in a theory he calls the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis6: The path of evolutionary behavior and the desire for new technology isn’t always the healthiest path. In his hypothesis Kanazawa explains that being more intelligent doesn’t always guarantee the most healthy and beneficial behavior, only the drive for novel behavior.

The misconception is that intelligence is associated with positive life outcomes. This universal notion is turned upside down by the evidence: Intelligent people, historically, prove to be more adventurous. They are more prone to stimulation seeking. And with stimulation and adventure goes risk. Since most human brain development ended about 12,000 years ago, it would seem to make sense that we are still wired for these evolutionary novelties.

The hypothesis is not without controversy. Such hypotheses, and the field of evolutionary psychology itself, have been subject to much critique. Arguments against include its lack of testability, its vagueness, the political and ethical issues, and its reliance of ideology rather than scientific rigor. (In fact, Criticism of Evolutionary Psychology has its own Wiki page.)

Then there’s Satoshi Kanazawa: his work has also met with controversy. In his other work, Kanazawa has argued: That multiculturalism is an impossibility, that not hating our enemies enough in the Middle East is the reason we can’t win the war, that gays and beautiful people are smarter, and on the unattractiveness of black women (oh yes he did). Let’s just say his findings have been interesting. (His Wiki page presents a brief overview.) He’d probably make any dinner party more lively.

The Brains to Rationalize, Etc.

Another theory as to why smart people like drugs is that their intelligence also enables them to rationalize and intellectualize their abuse. Intellectualizing, different than denial or rationalization, relies on knowledge. The abuser believes they know what addiction looks like and that is not them. This brain power can also help them delude themselves into believing they still have control over their abuse.

The thinking goes, with high IQs comes a demand for engagement and stimulation. When this need is not met, boredom and isolation can follow. Studies have long found a link between extremely high IQs and social maladjustment.7

Well, it is for rats anyway.

Research on rat behavior at the University of Texas found that rats left in isolation would show a greater preference for drug rewards and higher addiction rates than rats that weren’t isolated. The isolated animals were more sensitive to reward, more malleable, and therefore more easily addicted than those not isolated. Applying these results to human behavior has met with some controversy. Just how appropriate rat studies are for humans is the subject of much debate. For human children, loneliness and isolation generally occurs for those with an IQ of 170+, which is way beyond the mean of the rat study.

And Emotional Intelligence

Suppose the problem isn’t isolation or even overconfidence, what is it then that drives highly intelligent people toward drug use? Maybe it’s in the way we consider intelligence. The popular concept of emotional intelligence, and how it can be more significant than intelligence – as described in the bestselling book by Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More than IQ – is that it encompasses impulse control, perseverance, diligence, motivation, empathy, and social skills: The tools necessary for handling the challenges that can lead to success. A significant amount of research links low emotional intelligence with drug abuse.8 Despite that higher IQs are associated with success and achievement, they do not equate necessarily with the ability to make good decisions or use common sense.

More than 30 academic papers have correlated intelligence with mental illness, such as the increased likelihood of bipolar disorder.

Not an Excuse

This does not excuse self-destructive substance abuse for smart people. Many things can influence a person’s choice to begin abusing substances, including factors outside of a person’s control – trauma, family history, genetics, chemical sensitivity, certain brain proteins, and environment. Also, keep in mind that “intelligence” is often calculated through testing methods that have been widely criticized for putting certain populations at a disadvantage and for minimalizing the importance of creativity. Finding more precise and sensitive ways of measuring cognitive abilities is always evolving.

Ultimately, the truth is intelligent people don’t do the right thing more than anyone else. And when they have a substance abuse problem, whether compelled by evolution or not, they too will need help and support. It’s what we all deserve.

If you or a loved one feels a need to overcome an addiction, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout Southern California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.



Smarter People Take More Drugs. Wait. What?