A UK study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last year found that children with the highest IQs at ages 5 and 10 were more likely to experiment with illegal drugs later in life. Participants with IQs of 107-158 were asked about their drug use at age 30, and more of them than expected reported using one or more drugs in the past year. The lead author of the study, James White of Cardiff University, told Time magazine, “It’s counterintuitive. It’s not what we thought we would find.”
Reading the details of the study, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it’s only counterintuitive to researchers with limited experience working with gifted children, who are often alienated from their peers and bored to tears even in advanced classes. There’s been a great deal of research into so-called gifted “underachievement” by children and teens whose academic performance doesn’t reflect their high test scores – and the same pressures which cause gifted kids to fail in school can just as easily drive them to use drugs or alcohol.
Underachievement can occur for many reasons, including the presence of a learning disability, frustration at the lack of intellectual challenge, depression, and a lack of motivation when they don’t see any intrinsic reward in academic tasks. And often, the National Association for Gifted Children points out, underachievement is specific to a particular situation and subject. It can be due to poor self-image and fear of failure – and being very intelligent but feeling “stupid” is more common than you’d think. But it can just as easily occur when a child has outside interests or passions which they consider more important than what they’re being taught in school.
While it’s not true that highly intelligent people abuse drugs across the board, the study found that gifted women were twice as likely to use marijuana or cocaine, and that gifted men were 50% more likely to take amphetamines and 65% more likely to use ecstasy. This was true even when controlling for socioeconomic status and psychological distress, which both can correlate with drug use.
The study’s authors point to a few reasons why this pattern might emerge. They write that “high-IQ individuals have also been shown to score highly on tests of stimulation seeking and openness to experience.” They go on to state that it could be that “illegal drugs are better at fulfilling a desire for novelty and stimulation.” But their other hypothesis, which seems to be added almost as an afterthought, makes more sense to me as someone with about 10 years experience working in gifted education.
While they believe that there’s more going on than simply self-medication, the study authors concede that the observed boredom and social isolation many gifted children experience could explain the higher rates of drug use. They don’t think this is a significant factor because they focused on cases where study participants showed no psychological issues. And I think they’re really discounting the effect that social alienation can have on people – and the fact that by age 30, even if these people felt “different” and awkward in high school, they’ve probably moved on to have careers they find substantially more fulfilling. Even if the psychological stress is no longer there, the interest in drugs may still be.
Finally, it needs to be noted that there are some problems with how the study classifies IQ scores. 107-158 is not necessarily a useful range to examine – all are scores above the average of 100, but only children with an IQ of 120-130 or above are usually considered “gifted” by educational programs. 158 is a very high IQ score, estimated to occur in only 1 in 18,120 people. It’s not astronomically high, but it is fairly rare compared to the 1 in 3 score of 107. I’d like to see what further research might find on the subject, dealing with adults who tested at least 120 or above as children, to see if the statistical trend still holds up.
Photo credit: Andres Rueda