Why Kids With High IQs Are More Likely to Take Drugs

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

People with high IQs are more likely to smoke marijuana and take other illegal drugs, compared with those who score lower on intelligence tests, according to a new study from the U.K.

“It’s counterintuitive,” says lead author James White of the Center for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement at Cardiff University in Wales. “It’s not what we thought we would find.”

The research was based on interviews with some 7,900 British people born in early April 1970. Researchers measured the participants IQs at ages 5 and 10, then followed up with them at ages 16 and 30, asking about symptoms of psychological distress and drug use as part of a larger survey.

MORE: Are Stoners Really Dumb, or Do They Just Think They Are?

At age 30, about 35% of men and 16% of women said they had smoked marijuana at least once in the previous year; over the same time period, 9% of men and 4% of women said they had taken cocaine. Previous-year drug users tended to have scored higher on IQ tests than non-users.

The IQ effect was larger in women: women in the top third of the IQ range at age 5 were more than twice as likely to have taken marijuana or cocaine by age 30, compared with those scoring in the bottom third. The men with the highest IQs were nearly 50% more likely to have taken amphetamines and 65% more likely to have taken ecstasy, compared to those with lower scores.

And these results held even when researchers controlled for factors like socioeconomic status and psychological distress, which are also correlated with rates of drug use.

So why might smarter kids be more likely to try drugs? “People with high IQs are more likely to score high on personality scales of openness to experience,” says White. “They may be more willing to experiment and seek out novel experiences.”

MORE: Popping Smart Pills: The Case for Cognitive Enhancement

Another factor could be that the messages used to attempt to deter teens from drug use — particularly during the 1980s in the U.K. when the study group was in adolescence — weren’t exactly known for the subtlety of their reasoning, so they may not have targeted the smarter group well.

“What you typically find is that people with high IQs are less likely to smoke [cigarettes], more likely to be active and to have a good diet,” says White, noting that they are also likely to have high socioeconomic status. People in this group tend to make healthy choices, based both on health information and their own experience.

This group isn’t likely to see occasional drug use as particularly harmful, White says, both because there is little data to suggest great risk of harm from such use and because evidence of harm is rare among their peers. “With smoking, the evidence [about its dangers] is overwhelming,” says White, “whereas when you look at things like cannabis use, since they are more likely to associate with people who are similar to them, they are likely to see that smoking cannabis relatively infrequently doesn’t have huge impact.”

In contrast, drug users with less education and wealth are more likely to be exposed to negative consequences of drug use. This is due in part to the fact that money itself can buy protection against the types of criminal involvement and disease that can affect poor drug users.

MORE: Portugal’s Drug Experience: New Study Confirms Decriminalization Was a Success

“The likely mechanism is openness to experience,” White concludes, “and, I think, it’s also this idea of having an educated view of risk as well.” (Of course, American views about what consists of an “educated” perspective on drug risks have often clashed with those of the more relaxed position typically taken in Europe.)

The study didn’t look at the risk of addiction among those with high IQs because it wasn’t able to measure the frequency of drug use in participants. However, earlier research has found a connection between high IQ and greater risk of alcohol abuse and dependence.

That could potentially be linked to the boredom and social isolation experienced by many gifted children, the authors note. But since a link between IQ and drug use remains independent of psychological distress, that can’t be all that’s going on. “It rules out the argument that the only reason people take illegal drugs is to self medicate,” says White.

The research was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

MORE: Gym vs. Genes: How Exercise Trumps Obesity Genes

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

8 comments
sods
sods

High IQ persons take drugs at first because of an openness to experience, but they continue to do so because they feel an overwhelming and compelling need to exercise their minds.  Cannabis and hallucinogenics escort the brain to the gymnasium.  Arriving at the gymnasium, the brain drops off the mind and proceeds to take a nap while the mind goes to work.  The mind accomplishes a high volume of work in a short time and upon return to the car relates all it can to the brain while they return home together.  

RyanBrowning
RyanBrowning

Thanks for making this research know to me... so i can you know actually READ the ACTUAL research on my own. Ohh no links to the information? No way i could check to make sure this information and the research paradigm in of it self is not compromised. It looks to me as if this research failed to take into consideration the cohort effect.

MikeMansouri
MikeMansouri

How would this be counter intuitive? Bright people are more likely to make up their own decisions on stuff instead of accepting what they are told.

picklesthecat
picklesthecat

Do higher IQ suffer more serious or side effects than average IQ? Why does thc cause paranoia for some and not for others?

picklesthecat
picklesthecat

I would like to know how many people with average IQ go unnoticed and untreated for drugs. Also if there is a chemical that is linked to a higher IQ that response differently to drugs than and average IQ?

cneill
cneill

I'm curious as to exactly what studies show that people with high IQ tend to make healthier choices or avoid cigarettes. My experience leads me to the opposite conclusion.