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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If You're Smart, You Drink a Lot

Let's try a little thought experiment here (without looking at that prominent graph just below this paragraph, please). Take humans and divide them into five categories of intelligence, with normal in the middle. Now, imagine these arrayed on a bar chart that measures alcohol consumption per group. Which bars are the tallest? If you subscribe to mid-20th-century psuedo-science, you probably imagined a downward slope, with the dull-witted, criminal minds soaking in the most booze. Actually, just the opposite:

These findings are reported in Psychology Today. Amazingly, you can predict how much adults will drink by measuring how smart they are as children (in the aggregate, anyway):
[M]ore intelligent children, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, grow up to consume alcohol more frequently and in greater quantities than less intelligent children. Controlling for a large number of demographic variables, such as sex, race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, number of children, education, earnings, depression, satisfaction with life, frequency of socialization with friends, number of recent sex partners, childhood social class, mother’s education, and father’s education, more intelligent children grow up to drink more alcohol in the UK and the US.... “Very bright” British children grow up to consume nearly eight-tenths of a standard deviation more alcohol than their “very dull” classmates.
These findings are true even when stress levels are taken into account, factors controlled for in the study:
It means that it is not because more intelligent people occupy higher-paying, more important jobs that require them to socialize and drink with their business associates that they drink more alcohol. It appears to be their intelligence itself, rather than correlates of intelligence, that inclines them to drink more.
The piece also discusses the fascinating implication this behavior has with regard to natural selection. "Evolutionary novelty" describes the emergence of new behavior in a population--the critical step in adaptation. Because alcohol consumption is evolutionarily recent, we would expect humans who adopt it--those engaging in evolutionary novelty--to be the most clever. For it is the clever who tend to innovate, survive, and pass along their genes. And so, evolutionary biologists would have predicted that the humans to adopt drinking would be the most clever. And so it is.

Now, you might take the whole business in a different direction. Y ou might say: "Wow, the fact that I'm a major beerhound apparently confirms my genius." And far be it for me, your humble blogger, to disabuse you of such a notion. You're reading this blog, after all.


  1. Okay, smart beer guzzler, assuming this correlation is robust (and it appears that it is) the obvious question is why?

    What have you to say to this?

    My guess is that it is still in the unobservables: that intelligent people inhabit social circles in which drinking is prevalent. You can strip away the correlations with wealth and education and such, but you still can't really control for other social factors.

    Alternatively, maybe it is that alcohol dulls the mind and this is a relief to smarty-pants types who think too darn much.

  2. Perhaps it is just a way to cope with the burden of greater intelligence and the soul-crushing awareness of our own mortality that come with it.

    Or, maybe it is just a great way of dealing with all the idiots around them.

  3. Patrick,

    Of course, there's surely a web of related factors, which makes it even harder to assign causation. (But I don't have to tell you that.)

    But one factor I'd throw in the mix is experimentation and the appreciation of altered states of consciousness. This relates to the "evolutionary novelty" hypothesis, too. Lively minds are constantly on the prowl for new stimulus. I'd suggest that it's not to dull the brain, but to provide it a bit more entertainment.

  4. Simple answer - it hurts to be smart. Ever read the paper with a full awareness of history, the repeating cycles of destruction, the abject failures of humanity to learn the truly important lessons? Well no wonder I need a drink!