I get to spend time with a lot of smart people. And being smart is amazing. My high IQ colleagues and clients have stunning memories, a tremendous capacity to work through highly complex problems, and a level of intellectual horsepower that leaves me in awe.
Yet in the midst of all this giftedness, I often observe significant suffering.
Is there a downside to having a high IQ?
Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” History gives us many examples of highly intelligent people, plagued by feelings of angst and loneliness. Virginia Woolf suffered from severe depression, while Hemingway was thought to have bipolar disorder, among other potential diagnoses.
The picture of the tortured genius has become a widely accepted caricature of the highly intelligent, but is it a fair concern? Are folks with intellectual gifts any more susceptible to angst than the general population?
The “Termites” studies
During World War I, IQ tests started to catch on as a way to identify people of high intelligence- potential soldiers who could be especially helpful to the war effort. In 1921, a psychologist named Lewis Terman used and IQ test to identify a group of highly intelligent children in California schools.
The group became known as the “Termites” and consisted of 1,500 pupils with IQs above 140. 80 of those children had IQs above 170. A reminder for you stats folks, the mean is 100 and the standard deviation is 15. So a kid with an IQ of 140 is 2.6 standard deviations above the mean and makes up about 0.5% of the general population. These children were studied across their lifetime. The “Terman Study of the Gifted” still being the oldest longest-running psychological study.
Many of those involved with the study did achieve wealth and fame, as you might expect given their high level of intelligence. However, Terman was surprised that a number of them chose “humble” professions, such as typists or police officers. This lead him to conclude that intelligence and achievement are by no means perfectly correlated. (Arguably, what’s wrong with choosing a more humble career if that’s what they desire? But perhaps this is tapping into “expectation” put upon intelligent people, which we’ll get into).
Given the length of the study, many other findings have come out over the years. For example, being smart didn’t make the Termites any happier than the general population. Their rates of divorce and suicide were roughly the same as the national average. At best, being smarter made no difference to their overall life satisfaction, but at worst, it made them feel less accomplished.
Intelligence as a “burden”
One thing that came out of studying the surviving Termites during the 1990s (then in their 80s), was that many reported being plagued by a feeling that they’d failed to live up to the expectations of their youth.
It didn’t matter how much they had otherwise achieved over their 80 or more years, many held onto a creeping feeling that they could have done better.
Many smart folks are haunted by the creeping shadow of potential. Have you ever heard of someone being described as “not living up to their potential?” The young person who eschews college or chooses a “humble” career track may be subject to this. Smart people are the recipients of all kinds of expectations. Well-meaning parents, teachers, and bosses have all kinds of ideas of what ambition “should” look like. Just because someone has a brain that makes her capable of being a physicist, doesn’t mean that life course will make her soul feel fulfilled. It can be incredibly difficult for intelligent people to have the psychological space to discern and choose the path that feels right to them.
Intelligent people know that they’re smart and can take this as a burden upon themselves. If they’re not at the top of every problem or there’s an area of struggle, it can be difficult for them to cope. They have high expectations of themselves too.
Smart people get tired and make mistakes just like anyone else, but people can be harder on them for those mistakes because they think they should do better.
It’s easy to see how someone might experience intelligence as a burden. If you’re not willing to comply with others’ expectations or the “norms” of smart people (hello, you founders out there who chose not to go to college), then it seems you have to be prepared for judgment from others, alongside a potentially harsh inner-critic too.High IQ can be seen as an incredible burden of expectation to those who have it Click To Tweet
Mental blind spots
Another potential downside to having a high IQ is that it does not necessarily correlate with making better decisions or being more open to new ideas. Dr. Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto has spent over a decade researching tests for rationality. He has found that those who are highly intelligent are no more likely to cast aside previous assumptions or biases than anyone else.
One thing smart people may be more prone to is a bias blind spot. This means they will be less likely to see their own flaws, than those of the people around them. Besides being a really “fun” trait for people close to them, this lack of insight can hold back intelligent people from potential achievement or opportunities. Stanovich commented that; “there is plenty of dysrationalia – people doing irrational things despite more than adequate intelligence – in our world today.”
Intelligence and mental illness
Several studies show a correlation between high intelligence and mental disorders, as well as physical disorders too. Pitzer College researcher Ruth Karpinski and her colleagues studied 3,715 Mensa members, surveying them with questions about psychological and physiological disorders. Mood and anxiety disorders were particular stand-outs, with the respondents averaging rates of double or more the national averages. They also averaged slightly higher than average for physiological disorders.
Karpinski and her colleagues also propose the hyper brain/hyper body theory, as an explanation for their findings. This theory holds that, for all of its advantages, being highly intelligent is associated with psychological and physiological “overexcitabilities,” or OEs. So for example, a very intelligent person might ruminate more and overanalyze a disapproving comment. This might also trigger a physical stress response in the body, making the person more anxious.
There is still debate among psychologists as to the exact nature of any links between intelligence and mental health (correlation does not show causation!). One such area is “creative genius” and the image of the tortured artist. Whatever the truth may be, Vincent van Gogh chopped off his own ear and is suspected to have died by suicide, while Hemingway and Virginia Woolf were confirmed to have died by suicide.
Many have argued that the angst and mental health issues are part of what fuels the creativity. And perhaps our greatest gifts are deeply intertwined with our greatest pain.
A Psychology Today article sums this up well:
“This idea that suffering is necessary for art is hotly debated among artists and scientists. While it is important not to dismiss anyone’s feelings or experience, the fact that mental illness influences those feelings cannot and should not be ignored in the process of improving overall health.”
Connection with others
Highly intelligent people find it difficult to fit in with age-peers. Perhaps other people don’t grasp or find the same subjects interesting, or perhaps they even view the smart person as a bit of an outsider due to their intelligence.
Look at many smart kids in schools and you’ll often see this in play. They might try to tone down their “smartness” in an effort to fit in with the crowd.
At the same time, many highly intelligent people are afraid of “looking stupid.” This may lead to them not asking questions when they really should, or even not bothering to try new things because they’re afraid of failure. This fear of failure can also manifest in the form of crippling perfectionism, which can result in missed deadlines, never being happy with their work, or failing to even start.
Having a high IQ can be both a blessing and a minefield at the same time. Smartness is always associated with the potential to do great things, but this assumption also puts great pressure on the person.
The highly intelligent have also been shown to be more prone to mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety. They may fixate on the negatives, churning them over in their minds and activating a stress response in the body.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on IQ, but it is more prevalent in smart people. Look out for your friends and colleagues, and if you personally experience mental health issues, seek professional help. It’s important that we all take our mental health seriously!