Every parent wants to raise a smart kid. It seems logical that intelligence would correlate to better grades, a higher paying job and improved satisfaction with life. Yet studies show that a high IQ can get us into all kinds of trouble. Not only are brainiacs more likely to max out their credit cards and declare bankruptcy, but they’re also at greater risk for substance abuse.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes a blog about addiction. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes a teen drug rehab at The Right Step and Promises young adult rehab.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a high IQ in childhood is associated with a higher risk of getting drunk and binge drinking. Youth who were “very bright” (with an IQ over 125) engaged in binge drinking roughly once every other month while children with an IQ below 75 engaged in binge drinking less than once a year. Similarly, the National Child Development Study in the U.K. showed that the more intelligent participants were in childhood, the more alcohol they consumed in adulthood.
People with high IQs are also more likely to smoke marijuana and take other illegal drugs compared with those who score lower on intelligence tests, according to a study from Cardiff University in Wales. Researchers speculated that individuals with a higher IQ are more willing to experiment and seek out novel experiences. In addition, smart teens aren’t likely to see occasional drug use as particularly harmful, though they may not understand the serious risk of addiction or be able to accurately assess their own risk factors.
‘Too Smart’ to Be an Addict
In addition to being more likely to use drugs, people of high intelligence are typically less willing to admit a problem and seek professional help and harder to treat when they arrive in treatment. Here are a few reasons that intelligence can actually become a handicap to recovery:
Intellectualization. Intellectualization is a defense mechanism in which addicts argue over logical flaws and over-analyze insignificant details to prove they do not have a problem. What they discover in treatment is that addiction is not an illness that can be approached intellectually. Smart people do foolish things in the pursuit of a high. Even years into recovery, extremely bright people relapse because they tell themselves, “I can handle one drink/hit. I’m a new person and I know too much about my disease to ever go back to where I was.”
Clinton McCracken, a research scientist who specializes in addiction, learned this lesson the hard way. In 2010, he published a cautionary tale called “Intellectualization of Drug Abuse” in The Journal of the American Medical Association documenting his own drug problem. Believing that his intelligence and training would protect him from addiction, McCracken was disillusioned when his daily marijuana habit and intravenous opiate abuse led to the death of his fiancée and loss of his postdoctoral fellowship.
Although tragic, McCracken’s story is not unusual. Like many doctors, lawyers and other high-functioning addicts, he was able to continue functioning at a high level until something happened that shook his illusion of control and almost overnight ruined his personal and professional life.
Overconfidence. Well-educated professionals, and particularly health care workers with expertise in addiction, tend to believe their own intelligence will allow them to control a drug or alcohol habit. Since their best thinking has paid off for them in the past, they believe, “Others can’t control their drug use, but I know more than them. I can.”
Perceived Incompatibility with the 12 Steps. In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and related 12-Step programs, it is sometimes said that everyone has enough intelligence to be able to follow the Steps, but some have too much. There are a number of reasons highly intelligent addicts believe themselves to be at odds with 12-Step recovery. For one, they resist the wisdom of others. Rather than taking recommendations at face value (e.g., advice to avoid people, places and things that trigger the urge to use), they want to learn and experience every lesson for themselves – sometimes the hard way. Highly intelligent addicts, who tend to over-analyze every aspect of addiction and recovery, may have difficulty embracing concepts like humility, powerlessness and surrender, believing firmly in their own willpower and logic.
Because the intellectually gifted face unique obstacles in overcoming addiction, they often fare best in specialized addiction treatment programs for professionals. In these programs, care is provided by a team of fellow professionals who understand when to challenge defenses and when to offer support. Particularly for those who are treatment-resistant, general and profession-specific support groups can help them remain open to feedback from peers who are also in recovery.
A Loftier Pursuit: Emotional Intelligence
Where IQ falls short in furthering our health and happiness, research suggests emotional intelligence could pick up the slack. Defined, in part, as the capacity to identify and regulate one’s emotions, emotional intelligence improves our interactions with others and equips us with the skills to navigate a changing world. It is also a protective force against addiction.
In a study from a university in Barcelona, researchers found that students with high emotional intelligence were less likely smoke tobacco or marijuana than those with fewer emotion regulation skills. Emotional intelligence has also been linked to lower rates of stress and depression and better overall satisfaction with life.
Addiction doesn’t care how smart you are or how much money you make. Your wits may serve you well in many areas of life, but you simply can’t think your way out of a drug or alcohol problem. Certainly, learning about the disease and understanding its biological roots is an important part of recovery. But a much bigger – and more challenging – goal is developing the emotional intelligence and practical coping skills to change your daily life