Most people would assume that the more intelligent a person, the more likely they are to steer clear of drugs. But, while highly intelligent persons are more than capable of performing the logical math of equating drugs with physical and mental harm, study after study shows that high intelligence is more commonly linked to addiction than low intelligence. Empirical studies showing that children and adults with high IQs are more likely to abuse and become addicted to the substances date back to the 1970s, with new and repeat data being released nearly every decade. But why are highly intelligent persons, who should be able to more easily rationalize that drugs are harmful, more susceptible to addiction?
The largest parallels seem to relate to environment, boredom, creativity, and emotional instability, all of which are heavily linked to high intelligence. However, new data shows that drug addiction isn’t simply linked to higher intelligence, only to some of the factors that can arise because of intelligence.
Correlation Not Causation
While many studies seem to point to high intelligence as a factor in substance abuse and drug addiction, one study released in 2016 suggests this data is correlation not causation. In short, persons with higher IQs are more likely to experience factors that contribute to addiction, such as peer pressure, stress, anxiety, negative emotions, difficulty socializing, and high pressure to perform well in jobs or school. This contributes to an increased rate of self-medication, of using substances as a reward, and of trauma or stress which contribute to addiction. The same study reviewed over a dozen clinical reviews of drug use in teens, finding that once other factors were taken out of the equation, teens being prone to drug use did not change based on IQ tests.
So, Why is There a Correlation Between IQ and Drug Addiction?
While no similar study of adult drug use has been performed, it remains true that adults with high intelligence tend to be more prone to drug abuse and addiction. For example, some estimates suggest that over 21% of doctors and lawyers qualify as problem drinkers or drug users. And 20% or more students in professions like medicine abuse drugs like Ritalin and cocaine. In these cases, addiction can easily be traced to stress, the need to perform, and high amounts of pressure from parents, job boards, and patients or clients. Doctors, lawyers, and students use drugs to self-medicate, to unwind or reward themselves for a job well done, and to increase performance – all of which can easily lead to addiction.
As a result, many people eventually become high-functioning addicts who perform reasonably well in work and school functions, sometimes even outperforming colleagues. At the same time, they use substances to destress or to boost performance and eventually need the substance to perform well or at all.
More Than Just Stress
In some cases, intelligence correlates to addiction in ways other than stress. For example, boredom and creativity are both common inspirations to use and take drugs.
Boredom – Most people have seen the popular British BBC show featuring a bored Sherlock using drugs or Nicotine patches depending on the episode, but few relate that to real life. However, boredom is a huge risk for drug use, especially in teens with a large amount of leisure time. Drugs present comfort and entertainment and can help sensation-seeking teens to feel fulfilled, even with nothing to do. This is especially true for high-achievers, who find that success comes too easily to be truly fulfilling – contributing to an increased need for further sensation.
Creativity – The drug-seeking artist or creative is a well-understood and glamorized phenomenon, where creatives use substances to fuel art, music, or even dance. As a result, creatives can feel pressured or even as though they need drugs to be ‘genuine’ artists – resulting in rampant abuse and addiction.
Maturity – High levels of intelligence often result in persons being able to easily achieve things without developing the maturity or perseverance that come with having to fail. This can lead to sensation-seeking behavior, as intelligence doesn’t necessarily contribute to good social or health decisions until the negative consequences of those decisions become an important factor. So, a highly intelligent person may drink and drive or recklessly use drugs, simply because their intelligence allows them to use without consequence at first.
Each of these considerations can affect drug use and susceptibility to addiction in different ways. However, each are related to a higher IQ, and can impact individuals significantly in different ways depending on their specific choices.
Intelligence and Emotional Problems
High intelligence can greatly contribute to emotional instability, inability to socialize, and a lack of empathy. While each of these problems can change depending on the person, classical intelligence, as measured by an IQ test, often contributes to isolationism, instable social relationships, and social awkwardness. This can result in a lack of emotional intelligence, as well as feeling isolated, lonely, and left out. Drugs present an easy social lubricant, which many use to overcome barriers presented by a racing mind or overthinking – enabling them to act or be normal around others. This is especially true for those in turbulent houses or those who have experienced traumatic events such as family death or divorce – who would be prone to social awkwardness without a higher level of intelligence. People who use substances just to be in social situations are almost always more prone to substance addiction, and many people with a high IQ fall into this category.
Self-Medication, Depression, and Anxiety
Both anxiety and depression are strongly linked to higher intelligence, and both contribute to increased substance use. Abusers suffering from depression or anxiety, especially without a diagnosis, may be using substances to self-medicate, treating symptoms such as constant stress and worry or to relax and alleviate symptoms of depression. At the same time, those with high intelligence are often high-achievers and therefore less likely or willing to admit when something is wrong to seek out professional health and treatment. Data shows that while substance use disorders average at around 8.02% for the general population, they average at 32% or higher for persons with mood disorders like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. So, the fact that persons with high intelligence are more prone to mood disorders makes many innately more vulnerable to substance addiction.
While many people with a higher IQ are prone to addiction, a higher level of intelligence does not mean you have to be addicted. Anyone can learn to beat substance use, get treatment for existing disorders, and learn stress management and lifestyle management to combat the issues and problems contributing to drug addiction.
A professional treatment center will help you to beat your own addiction and the underlying causes behind it. Once you go through medical detox, your treatment facility will assess you for cooccurring disorders like anxiety and depression. From there, you will receive treatment including counseling, group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other complimentary treatment such as nutrition therapy to ensure that you have the mental and physical health to make a full recovery from substance addiction.
While a high IQ can contribute to addiction, it doesn’t mean you have to stay addicted. If you or a loved one is dependent on a substance, there is help, no matter the situation. Please contact Lighthouse Treatment Center today, we are to help and happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors.