Monday, 6 August 2012

Disadvantages of high IQ

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Having a high IQ is not always good news

Mensa Magazine June 2009 pp 34-5

Bruce G Charlton


There are so many advantages to having a high IQ that the disadvantages are sometimes neglected – and I don’t mean just short-sightedness, which is commoner among the highly intelligent. It really is true that people who wear glasses tend to be smarter!

High IQ is, mostly, good for you

First it is worth emphasizing that high IQ is mostly very good for you.
This has been known since Lewis Terman’s 1920s follow-up study of Californian high IQ children revealed that they were not just cleverer but also taller, healthier and more athletic than average; and mostly grew-up to become wealthy and successful.

Professor Ian Deary of Edinburgh University has confirmed that both health and life-expectancy improve along with increasing IQ. So that, remarkably, a single childhood IQ test done on one morning in Scotland in 1932 made significantly-valid statistical predictions about when people would die many decades later.
And other studies have shown that higher IQ people tend to be less violent, so smarter people usually make less-troublesome neighbours.

Indeed, Geoffrey Miller has put forward the idea that IQ is a measure of biological fitness. Since it takes about half of our genes to make and operate the brain, most damaging genetic mutations will show-up in reduced intelligence. So it would have made sense for our ancestors to choose their mates on the basis of intelligence, because a good brain implies good genes.

Sidis and the problems of ultra-high IQ

However, high IQ is not always beneficial. Terman’s study of the highest IQ group among his cohort revealed that more than one third grew up to be ‘maladjusted’ in some way: for example having significant problems of anxiety, depression, personality disorder or experience of ‘nervous breakdowns’.

This applied to William James Sidis (1898-1944), who is often considered to have had the highest-ever IQ (about 250-300). Sidis was a child prodigy, famous throughout the USA as having enrolling at Harvard aged 11 and graduated at 16. Yet he was certainly ‘maladjusted’, and had a chaotic, troubled and short life. Indeed, Sidis was widely considered to have been a failure as an adult – although this failure has been exaggerated, since it turns out that Sidis published a number of interesting books and articles anonymously.

In fact, there seems to be a consensus among psychometricians (and among the possessors of ultra-high IQ themselves) that - while an IQ of about 120-150 is mostly advantageous - extremely high IQ levels above this may prove to be as often of a curse as a benefit from the perspective of leading a happy and fulfilling life.

On the one hand, the ranks of genius are often recruited from amongst the more creative and stable of ultra-high IQ people; but on the other hand there are also a high proportion of chronically-disaffected ultra-high IQ people that have been termed ‘The Outsiders’ in a famous essay of that title by Grady M Towers
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Socialism, atheism and low-fertility

Sidis himself demonstrated, in exaggerated form, three traits which I put forward as being aspects of high IQ which are potentially disadvantageous: socialism, atheism and low-fertility.

1. Socialism

Higher IQ is probably associated with socialism via the personality trait called Openness-to-experience, which is modestly but significantly correlated with IQ. (To be more exact, left wing political views and voting patterns are characteristic of the highest and lowest IQ groups – the elite and the underclass - and right wingers tend to be in the mid-range.)

Openness summarizes such attributes as imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, preference for variety and intellectual curiosity – it also (among high IQ people in Western societies) predicts left-wing political views. Sidis was an extreme socialist, who received a prison sentence for participating in a May Day parade which became a riot (in the event, he ‘served his time’ in a sanatorium).

Now, of course, not everyone would agree that socialism is wrong (indeed, Mensa members reading this are quite likely to be socialists). But if socialism is regarded as a mistaken ideology (as I personally would argue!), then it could be said that high IQ people are more likely to be politically wrong. But whether correct or wrong, the point is that high IQ people do seem to have a built-in psychological and political bias.

2. Atheism

Something similar applies to atheism. Sidis was an atheist, and it has been pretty conclusively demonstrated by Richard Lynn that increasing IQ is correlated with increasing likelihood of atheism. The most famous atheists – like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – are ferociously intelligent individuals.

Again, whether atheism is a disadvantage is a matter of opinion (to put it mildly!) – but what is not merely opinion is that religious people are on average more altruistic in terms of measures such as giving to charity, giving blood, and volunteering time for good causes.

So, higher IQ may be associated with greater selfishness. In other words, smarter neighbours may be less troublesome on average, but they may also be less helpful.

3. Fertility

However the biggest and least-controversial disadvantage of high IQ is reduced fertility. Again Sidis serves as an example: as a teenager he published a vow of celibacy, and he neither married nor had children.

Pioneer intelligence researchers such as Francis Galton (1822-1911) noticed that (since the invention of contraception) increasing intelligence usually meant fewer offspring. Terman confirmed this, especially among women – so the group of the highest IQ women had only about a quarter of the number of children required for replacement fertility.

This trend has, if anything, increased in recent years as ever-more high IQ women delay reproduction in order to pursue higher education and professional careers. Indeed, more than 30 percent of women college graduates in the UK and Europe have no children at all – and more than half of women now attend college.

Since IQ is highly heritable, this low fertility implies that over time high IQ will tend to select itself out of the population.

The bad news and the good news

So much for the bad news about high IQ.

The good news is that while the advantages of high IQ are built-in; the disadvantages of high IQ are mostly a matter of choice.

People can potentially change their political and religious views. For example, Sidis apparently changed from being a socialist to a libertarian, indeed many adult conservatives went through a socialist phase during their youth (declaration of interest: this applies to me).

And religious conversions among the high IQ are not unknown (declaration of interest: this applies to me). For instance, GK Chesterton and C.S Lewis being famous examples of atheists who became the two greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century.

Indeed, although it does not often happen, smart people can also choose to be more fertile. One example is the Mormons in the USA, whose average IQ and fertility are both above the national average, and where the wealthiest Mormons also have the biggest families. Presumably - since wealth and IQ are positively correlated - this means that for US Mormons higher IQ leads to higher fertility.

So, on the whole it remains good news to have a high IQ - although perhaps not too-high an IQ. But perhaps the high IQ community needs to take a more careful look at the question of low fertility. It may be that, under modern conditions, high intelligence is stopping people from ‘doing what comes naturally’ and having large families.

Human reproduction could be one situation where the application of intelligence may be needed to over-ride our spontaneous emotions or the prevailing societal incentives.

Or else at some point in the future, high IQ could become very rare indeed.



Anonymous said...

This blog is really interesting. I haven't taken an IQ test, though I do well on standardized tests (math is my weakest point, and that's mainly from a lack of interest).

I can certainly identify with much of what you are saying here. I am not a socialist, but I am strongly libertarian-leaning (which might be considered Bizarro-Socialism). I am an atheist as well as a moral nihilist, and I think I always have been - I just /didn't believe people/ when they asserted things: after all, their arguments didn't make any sense! The selfishness is spot on, too - I frankly don't care even about my friends except for the personal enjoyment I get out of them. There is no deeper interest in their emotional lives, etc. And the celibacy thing is spot on. To be non-PC, women tend to be more social and less intellectual than men and I find both of those traits kind of annoying. After some brief flings in my teen years (none of which resulted in blow-ups, just fizzle-outs) I decided that sex was not good enough to justify dealing with women.

I have heard elsewhere that intelligent and intellectual people tend to use reason in place of other parts of the brain/subconscious heuristics that most people do, and this explains why we just can't communicate with others about values/politics/relationships, we're not even talking about the same thing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HA - If you keep investigating this matter, and don't remain satisfied with your current opinions; there is a good chance you will go *through* your present dark and isolated position and out into the sunlight on the other side, with a deeper understanding of matters to show for it.

Dorian said...

Hey Bruce,

I would like to ask you a question. How many languages do you think a person would be able to fluently speak with a IQ in the range of 150 thru 160+ ?

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - At least one.

Speaking more than one language has not much to do with IQ, and a lot to do with being exposed to multiple languages when young.

Kellen said...

The disadvantages you listed are disadvantages only if your talking about personal happiness.

1. Being socialist is hard because your beliefs come from a large synthesis of ideas and arguements from either side and getting average intelligence people to believe things contrary to what they already do is very hard and feels like paddling upstream, as many math teachers know. It isolates you from the average people and your high iq isolates culturally from the low iq people most of the time.

2. Being Aetheist, or agnostic is again a disadvantage in life only really because it isolates you. It is advantageous to be in the in group. Secondly it can be depression seeing peoples closed mindedness on the idea of religion. I have only to say god is conclusively inconclusive but religion is full of human fallacy, it also has caused many wars atrocities and many of the big ones have a sexist structure in place. Did you know priests are extremely prone to be perverts and have stunted emotional states? Its hard to be in any out group especially when you have to defend yourself against low intelligent close minded people.

3. I reject your imposition that religious people are better neighbors. They only are if you are also religous. Intelligent people may be more reclusive but you mentioned they are proned to be more open minded and in my experience compassionate to others who are open minded. They also tend to be more conscientious and that means ensuring they will not make you provide them with assistance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kellen - We, in The West and all developed nations - live in the most wholly secular public world in the history of humanity. Religious reasons are excluded from the mainstream mass media and government and all the civil service and world of semi-governmental NGOs. Isolation and alienation are almost universal - but this is a feature of the modern secular perspective which has a metaphysical basis that life has no meaning, purpose or relation between the self and anything else - indeed life itself, including consciousness, is an illusion. Being a socialist/ secular is indeed hard - because socialism/ secularism make it hard.

2. I agree atheists and agnostics are existentially isolated - by their own non-belief system which makes everything else a delusion. But they are surrounded by their own perspective and their own kind - so it is not the isolation of an oppressed minority but of a hegemonic majority whose success has poisoned their own lives.

3. Religious people are better neighbours according to a mass of social science work which you can find for yourself if you are interested; also confirmed by experience - I mean they are better neighbours in times of trouble or need (not if you simply want to be left alone to do whatever you want).

Marcus Aurelius said...

I am a heterosexual male whose I.Q. measurement varies between 125-140. One thing that I've noticed is that women with high I.Q.'s are much more attracted to me intellectually, socially, culturally, and SEXUALLY than less intelligent women. I will leave the hypothesis explaining the aforementioned to others. But, that has been my experience.

- said...

Where would you put forms of non-theism like Buddhism? It's a religion yet it's unlike most other ones.

Bruce Charlton said...


As a quick generalisation, the form of Buddhism that appeals to intellectuals is Zen, which is not really the Buddhist religion as practices by tens of millions (*that* is a kind of paganism). Indeed, Zen is - strictly - not a religion at all; and insofar as it *is* a religion (texts, priests, temples etc), it is not Zen.

- said...

Zen, Taoism and the likes were exactly what I was thinking of, even though I deliberately didn't name them. I can see how every philosophy and/or religion has to go through a "bastardization" to be digestible for the masses. In that sense, I think for the Endogenous person of high intelligence, they serve the purpose of the boat that carries them to the other side of the river, since they can grasp the essence of these ideas rather easily.

From that point on, a religion becomes just the particular flavor one has chosen to favor, surrounding that important and essentially humane core. I can also imagine forms of theism that aren't really theism, for example pantheism is such:

Bruce Charlton said...

At least in the West and in modern times; the typical, average adherents of Zen, Taoism, and pantheism share all the 'disadvantages of high IQ' that I describe above!

Nature Creek Farm said...

A big missing perspective is that intelligence itself isn't the key to human survival, and that it is simply an anomalous distraction from a clever animal's ability to cooperate and reproduce. Most of the factors related to social/civil IQ status are better understood as 'fringe' characteristics. "Go along to get along" vs anomalous neurological quirks. In the long run, these anomalies have pushed out the edges of what the mean Mean considered "right" or righteous, and most paid with their lives (heretics), while a few improved the lot of the whole (explorers). If you push out of the caste, and are physically and socially fit enough, it stretches your survival while also improving the whole group's gene pool (forcing neurotypicals to face random risks they otherwise avoid). Humans need intelligence to evolve, but also need tigers to trim the edges and reinvigorate the sensibilities of natural existence. Intelligence loses its usefulness when it is disconnected from natural resources. When civilized (city-based culture) humans as a species lose touch with the farsighted barbarians who built the city walls, they go "open loop" inside those walls and consume their own future through competing fanaticisms and fanatic competicism. Modern mercantilism has become the primary educator, so we are conditioned to compete and seek differences and dissatisfaction, rather than cooperate and be satisfied. The Mean has become enthralled with meanness even while selling a dream of consumable individualism. The more intelligent/unique, the harder the sales pitch. Cognitive dissonance sells very profitable dreams. "Regrets are for wussies (who think)".