Speculative reasons why smart people drink more

By Greg B. Just a quick look through history will show us that some of the smartest people were also the most drunk.  Recent history to points people who narrowly avoided, but still avoided, a nuclear war (Khrushchev and Kennedy, for examples), while more ancient history is speckled with famous philosophers and inventors (Plato’s symposium is a bunch of guys getting hammered and thinking, while Ben Franklin was notorious for drinking around Philly) or conqueror “Give me a woman who loves Beer, and I will conquer the world’ – Kaiser Wilhelm.  We kind of take this as a fact at face value.  Creative people tend to harbor some sort of desire for mind-altering states.  But is there any evidence to suggest this may be true?

Well, it turns out there is. And while I am a bit loathe to reference an English study as something to extrapolate out to the general human population (pork pasties and mediocre bitters pass for food and drink there, remember that), a study was conducted.  Essentially, subjects were classified on a 1-5 scale, randing from ‘very dull’ to ‘very bright’ in terms of their intelligence (yes, I’m sure these tests have flaws, but if there’s one thing Psychologists are good at, it’s finding and controlling for all sorts of extraneous variables.  So, these tests are probably far more valid than most of us like to believe), and then tested the cohorts throughout life.  While tests like this reveal valuable information on heritability of all sorts of disorders, identifying potential genetic components and the effects of particular lifestyle choices on physical or mental health, these data also indicated something very interesting.  The more ‘intelligent’ a person was, the more they drank.

Now, before you hear this and run out to the bar, ordering as many beers as you can, remember a few things.  First, this is a correlation.  Second, this does not necessarily mean that drinking more will make you more intelligent.  The opposite may be true.  But what it does indicate is that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to drink, compared to your age, gender, income matched conspecifics.  Great, so now we can all head to our favorite bars, pat ourselves on the backs and buy rounds of beer for our friends, backed by science, knowing that 10% of our monthly budget going to beer really is indicative of our intellect, and not an unhealthy preference for the bottle.  But, I wanted to take a step back and think for a bit.  Why would it be the case that more intelligent people drink more?

First, as a duly self-appointed representative and self-classified ‘very bright’ individual who also happens to enjoy booze, I feel it’s my job to speculate (any other self-appointed representatives, feel free to weigh in).  I, personally, like the quote by George Jean Nathan stating that ‘I drink to make other people interesting’.  Booze is one of those great equalizers.  It softens the critical mind of some, letting them be less anxious and more tolerant of other people and topics who would normally be found to be irritating.  For others who are, or who’s interests and attention is narrowly focused, it loosens inhibitions and allows them to be more creative.  There’s a reason Plato and his philosopher buddies would sit around, drinking copious amounts of wine and philosophizing, and this is exactly it.   There are also some (though widely unknown) neurological mechanisms at play here.  While alcohol has well known behavioral effects as an anxiolytic and sedative substance, it appears to work globally around the brain, acting on a subtype of inhibitory receptor called the GABAa receptor.  This receptor mediates quick acting inhibition on neurons, essentially making them less likely to fire an action potential, in terms of what we care about, less likely to work or pass along information.  But what does this have to do with the topic of this post?

Plenty.  It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize what is happening in the brain.  Alcohol makes it’s merry way up there,where it enhances the ability of this receptor to shut down the cell it’s on, basically quieting the brain a bit, but notably areas in the prefrontal cortex, that control your ‘executive’ behaviors.  What are these?  Well, science has found that, in a nut shell, your prefrontal cortex inhibits you from doing all that stupid, random, offensive, distasteful, inappropriate behaviors that you normally don’t do.  Damage this area, and you’re going to become a swearing, anti-social, socially inappropriate person… the kind of person people don’t want to hang out with.  What does alcohol do?  It inhibits this area from inhibiting your generally dumb ideas, letting you loosen up a bit, say things you might not normally have said, tolerate things you wouldn’t normally tolerate and make dares and decisions you would have thought were downright silly, when you were sober.  Given these reasons, it seems obvious why intelligent people drink more!

We booze so we can tolerate everyone else.  Where before we tend to take people’s responses at literal face value, now we can relax a bit, stop being so anal with semantics and let comments slide a bit.  We change our normally myopic and narrow focus of the world into a (slightly more) global view, and perhaps we’ll even let others a few chances to express viewpoints that we don’t normally hold.  Of course, when we sober up all this openness is gone, but hey, that’s why we drink more.  To normalize ourselves into tolerating the normally droll and mundane conversations and viewpoints of the ‘normal’ or ‘dull’ people of the world (to use the original study’s terminology).  While this seems to fly in the face of the stereotypes of drunk poor people, hey, it’s science.  Maybe years ago those stereotypes were true, in the times when Oscar Wilde made his famous quote that ‘Working is the curse of the drinking class’.  But today, times are changing.  And backed with scientific longitudinal studies, we know the real answer.  Intelligent people tend to drink more than normal or very ‘dull’ people.

So the next time you’re in a bar and you see someone sitting along, downing a bunch of beers or some whiskey, don’t think to yourself ‘typical, damn drunk Irish’.  Think to yourself ‘ahh, an intelligent person is trying to make himself tolerable to the rest of the world!’ and go over and help him out.  Buy him a shot.  He may turn out to be a drunk bum, or the department chair of a research institute.  Either way, you’re doing your part in helping humanity.  As for me, I think I’ll relax and have another beer.

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42 Responses to Speculative reasons why smart people drink more

  1. Reminds me of the Bruce’s Philosophers Song from Monty Python.

    I would be curious about any correlation between alcoholism and intelligence. I would suspect that it is negative. At least in the long term.

  2. Fellowlush says:

    I knew it!

    After a few, your reasoning made perfect sense.

    Welcome to the club.

  3. Charles says:

    Great story! Very interesting…….

  4. Jeanne says:

    Every really smart person I’ve ever known (IQ’s over 130) is a misfit in some way,probably because they’re so bored with the outside world of less intelligent. I’d have to agree. I’ve never found a correlation with high grades in school and intelligence or creativity, quite the opposite. Followers are boring!!!!!
    Raise a glass or two!

  5. Ana says:

    No wonder.. thanks for this.

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  7. Tracie says:

    As someone that was one of those genius IQ kids that grew up to spend 25 years working in bars, I have to say this article is spot on. Not only did I notice that the heavy drinking regulars were the most interesting to talk to, the only way I survived being social for a living was by consuming huge amounts of vodka. Sober, I’m a misanthrope that would cheerfully kill most people. Drunk, I’m friendly, patient, and think I like some people. Reciprocally, when I’m drunk people like me. Sober, not so much.

  8. Julia says:

    My thoughts are more along the line that smart people go to college where they encounter a culture of binge drinking, that lasts.

  9. jeanne says:

    Smart maybe but no common sense!

  10. meg says:

    i drink to drown out the noise in my head. sometimes it’s nice to just stop thinking so much :P

  11. Kate says:

    Wonder if it’s the same with certain drugs (marijuana, hallucinogens, etc.)? Most drug users I know are highly intelligent and/or creative. Sometimes I think it’s just to make the world more interesting. I’m generally a very curious person and don’t NEED drugs or alcohol to make the world interesting, but sometimes I definitely want it. And it certainly does make intolerable people more tolerable.

  12. dean says:

    Had to pop some PCP just to bear with your logic.

    Here’s a question to mull over: what about all the people that aren’t smart who drink heavily? If I’m drunk right now, does that mean I’m smart? As a follow-up, are alcoholics the smartest of them all?

    These questions and more keep me up at night. Hope you were able to tolerate this without grabbing the ol’ bottle.

  13. Pat says:

    I think it’s all of the above. Drowning out the noise of the ever-churning brain. Alleviating boredom (by leveling the playing field). Blurring the enhanced perception that forces one to see the world as the depressing place it really is. Probably some genetic correlation. Cheers!

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  18. crunchycon says:

    There have been studies of gifted children that followed them through decades, and the premise that “more intelligent drink more booze” was found to be true — also to do more drugs, also to be more depressed. It is hard to deal with it when nearly the entire world is made up of morons/idiots/stupid people (relatively speaking). Making fun of the premise shows which side of the line one is on….

  19. Roy says:

    My analysis of this thesis is somewhat split. I find, in particular, the subject matter – a correlation between intelligence and drinking – to an extent rather invalid as (in especial during high school years) a majority of those intelligent, focused peoples were far too attentive and competitive to resort to drinking for any reasons listed above. I, for example (although only 19 at the moment), have never had a drop to drink, even since arriving at Carnegie for my freshman year (might I add in addendum that this is not on account of a predisposition to law?). Of course, the dynamics of this school I am certain are far different from those of, say, Duke or Cornell. But I must add that a multitude of my friends here do not drink – as well, almost everyone at this university is highly intelligent.

    What I must agree with, however, is how mundane the general populace (which is not represented highly at a top-25 university but highly at public high schools such as the one I attended) may be in scurrying about their dull, lackluster lives day after day. I can’t stand he who can not develop a fascinating conversation that expounds on topics with more gravity or bearing on life, or on thought-provoking ideas. Those people that can are the people I love. The ones that see the world at a level that I view things (although theirs is often a brighter, more optimistic standpoint). I like to listen to people talk when they a) have relevant things to say and b) are not full of bullshit. But the others are…contented…with such lives: the people they think care about them (but could strike them down at any second), the jobs they think truly contribute to society (but do little more than put food on their tables). They have no dreams, nor vivacity, nor aspiration/realization that they should find ways to improve environment or improve the lives of others through innovation or contribution by any other means. Issues are everything. Disregard of them is the rub. And it’s such a shame when intelligible peoples are hit under life’s unfair circumstances – they try but happen to fail. Disregarders, on the other hand, are just boring to talk to because they do nothing useful and have little to show for it.

    And I’ve always been as semantic as the writer of this article stipulates the most intelligent people tend to be. I’ve never been “socially advanced” – in fact, I was held back a year in kindergarten on account of it because I was misunderstood – advanced in intellect…”socially awkward” (who said I cared for getting along with intellectually inferior five-year-olds when I had the brain of a ten-year-old?). I’ve hated people so much, I have such a terrible, pessimistic attitude about humanity and the world. But this doesn’t mean I resort to alcohol to fix my problems. You, as brilliant as you are, should realize that correlation doesn’t necessitate causation! I’m just as stressed out by a heavy workload and demoralized by failures as the best of them out there still at university. Perhaps you’re right, though, perhaps people are weaker than me and susceptible to peer-pressure at college (here there is hardly that pressure at all). Perhaps this is how people deal with their problems, i.e. having to deal with stupid and frivolous people and hard-ass days on the job and in school. Fine, that’s their prerogative. As for me, I loosen up my stressed out body with a 6:20 minute mile followed by a four-hour piano playing session.

  20. Dixon says:

    Kids, we have a winner!
    While I can’t run a 6:20 mile, and my four hour music sessions only pay me $100 per (gigging musician here), I can certainly drink y’all interesting.
    I scored 150+ on the Wechsler, way back in the Stone Ages, and qualified for membership in Mensa, so I reckon I qualify as much as anyone to validate your thesis.
    (My mother considered that organization a ridiculous waste of an annual fee, so she put the kibosh on my joining, but I still love her. She was probably right, too.)
    From my own experience, and those of the very bright people I know, you are spot on. Thinkers are drinkers, and vice versa.
    Self medication is what gets me through the vast forest of stupidity–by stupidity, I don’t mean the less bright. I mean the herd mentality foisted upon us, every second of every day.
    I would chase this subject down more, but I’m stone sober right now, and you bore me…just kidding, of course.
    Keep up the good work!

  21. jbingo says:

    Noticed two things: Every post enjoyable to read (as opposed to bashing posts on other threads); these posts followed an article on drinking and intelligence. Coincidence methinks not. Would happily hoist a few and chat with any of you.

    And, Roy, give it time. Wasn’t till my mid-30s that I “got it.”

  22. eeg says:

    The thing that makes smart people drink more over time is the obvious harshness of being alive. Regardless of the the fact that everyone else is so ‘stupid’, it can be sussed out pretty quickly that happiness is fleeting, decay starts at age 14, and indignity, compromise and some semblance of self-delusion are as inevitable in life as BF’s hoary old chestnut about death and taxes. F. Scott said drinking puts a golden glow on the world, and it does. It relieves a feeling of futility AND can only be called a bargain at +/- 15 dollars to blow your own mind. It is a miracle, with its own built-in punishment. I did not drink until my late 20′s. The study doesn’t say you get smart if you drink, it says smart people, over a lifetime are prone to drink more. Death and clocks taught me how to drink, and drinking taught me how to keep going and revel in the joy that comes, when it comes and that not everything is black and white. Let’s do shots!

  23. Linda says:

    “Self classified, bright individual” needs to check his grammar for possessives: it’s “whose” not – who’s, and “its” – not it is. Sorry, I haven’t started drinking yet this morning!

  24. Moses says:

    As for intelligence, the smartest dudes I knew wrote on a bathroom wall. They wrote, in steps, “I drink, therefore I am”, and then, “To be is to do” by Kierkegaard, then “To do s ot be” Karl Marx, then, “Doo bee Dooo bee Dooooo” Sinatra, and finally, “Do a doobie bro” Jerry Garcia….so you tell me who is smart???

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  26. Madeline says:

    I think you’re right in a lot of ways. Sure, different people drink for different reasons and to varied intensities. Although some people have taken it as such, I didn’t think that this was a blanket ‘all drunks are smart’ statement. Rather, it seems you were pointing out that many academics or ‘smart’ people that you knew tended to drink a lot. I am part of what would be considered the ‘academic’ world and throughout my experiences, have seen much behaviour to confirm this idea. In this sense, my comments do not extend to all smart people, but only those who are part of this particular world. For whatever reason – be it wanting to shut off the noise, take an outrageous break from long hours and often thankless work, or to make other people more tolerable – it seems a lot of academics drink. Many of us spend the majority of our days either in our own heads or up to our necks in responsibility. To be honest, I don’t think that anybody should be surprised that this type of high-stress life-style would drive one to drink.

  27. Adam says:

    Doesn’t drinking an excess of 2oz of alcohol a day shrink your brain? If so doesn’t that seem like a self defeating cycle – smart people drink to be normal thus causing essentially brain damage resulting in not being so smart? Talk about alcohol the great equalizer. Not gonna keep me from drunking though.

  28. romelle says:

    All this makes sense given the people I know who have an overactive intelligence and don’t drink. They could use a shot of something or at least a glass of wine. I do, however, take offense to equating working class people and dull people. That kind of bias shows a real lack of exposure to working class people. My social circle is working class and we read books, newspapers (online even) and we complain like snobs about grammar. We have been to college and everything!

  29. romelle says:

    I would also add a theory. Some people have achieved success and good grades without being particularly intelligent. Feeling like a fraud would drive one to drink. Also, the issues from a childhood of perfectionist, overbearing parents would have the same result.

  30. Dan says:

    @Roy

    I needed a stiff drink just to get through your post. Tone it down a bit. You can convey the same ideas more elegantly by using simpler language (and you’ll appear smarter, too).

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/10/051031075447.htm

  31. Kendra says:

    I completely agree. Another theory (for college students): Smarter people don’t need to study as much, and/or are great at managing their time so they have plenty of time to drink!

  32. Bobby says:

    Intelligence generally equals empathy, and the world is so sad, grief is so hard to avoid, that I think the more attuned people are to their own and others’ sorrow, the more likely they are to want to deaden their perceptions with alcohol. On the other hand, they are overly mindful of the effect of being in control (or so they think) of their minds, that they rarely use any mind-altering substance that night be hallucinogenic. They are quite protective of the power of thought.

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  34. Doug Byrd says:

    It’s very simple:smart people make more money and can therefore afford to drink more (and better) stuff.I’m guessing that my eclectic preference for Lich,Steinhager and Eiswein puts me in a somewhat different category.We won’t even mention the Mad Dog and Night Train.

  35. ancientaliens says:

    Smart people often have a different opinion of life, they like to experience different states of mind which can enlighten them and drinking helps them to get such experiences..

  36. nikilee80 says:

    Hah! It’s nice to have another person back up my opinion on this matter. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I drink to deal with other people. I, too, get irritated when I’m forced to socialize with boring people. After such a person tells a story, this quote, or something similar, pops up in my head: “Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it”. -Jim Downey(from Billy Madison)

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