Intelligent People Drink More Alcohol

I saw this yesterday in the Discovery Channel’s In answer to the question “do intelligent people drink more alcohol,” two separate answers reached the same surprising conclusion. When I say surprising, I mean it will come as a shock to the anti-alcohol wingnuts who continue to deny any positive attributes whatsoever to drinking alcohol. Because while the answer isn’t that new, or that unpredictable, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time around responsible drinkers — wets vs. drys — you probably already knew that the answer is simply yes.

Their first answer was from Ian O’Neill, Discovery News’ Space Producer, who wrote:

Surprisingly, a recent study using data from the National Child Development Study in the United Kingdom and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States indicates that intelligent people really do drink more alcohol.

By tracking the intelligence of children under the age of 16 and then revisiting them as adults, it turned out that kids who were considered “more bright” than others in their age group ended up drinking more alcohol later in life. Even after researchers canceled out marital status, parents’ education, earnings and childhood social class, smarter kids were drinking more alcohol as adults.

Why would intelligent people drink more alcohol? Some researchers suggest that as the production of alcohol is only a recent invention (within the last 10,000 years) and our ancestors had gotten their alcohol buzz from rotten fruit, the more intelligent humans would be more likely to drink modern alcoholic beverages. Although this is attractive evolutionary speculation, it’s more likely the real reasons are more complex.

The second answer was presented not by an individual, but as a group answer by Curiosity:

It’s a myth that alcohol kills individual brain cells, but drinking can cause long-term brain damage. That’s why researchers were surprised in 2010, when data from Britain and the United States revealed that more intelligent children, when grown and of legal age, tended to drink more alcohol than their less intelligent peers. The researchers were able to control for other factors that might affect a person’s propensity to drink, such as marital status and income, and the findings related to childhood intelligence held up. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this link exists; one writer posited that drinking alcohol for pleasure is a relatively new thing, evolutionarily speaking. Intelligent people tend to try new things, so the writer argued that people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner are actually performing a novel act when you take a long view of history.

One of the longitudinal study each answer is referring to was The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) conducted here in the U.S., while the other was part of the UK’s massive National Child Development Study in the UK. I started writing about some of the conclusions drawn from the UK study several months ago, abandoning it when I got busy with other projects, but it’s still pretty interesting. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist who writes a blog for Psychology Today entitled the Scientific Fundamentalist, wrote More Intelligent People Are More Likely to Binge Drink and Get Drunk which covered much of the same ground. Although in it Kanazawa focuses on something I strongly disagree with. “Not only are more intelligent individuals more likely to consume more alcohol more frequently, they are more likely to engage in binge drinking and to get drunk.” That propensity to “binge drink,” I’d argue, has more to do with the narrowing definition of binge drinking than any actual increase in drinking. Binge drinking used to be a defined qualitatively but over the past few decades has become quantitative, meaning it’s become defined as a specific number of drinks in a set period of time, absent any context or mitigating factors (of which there could be many). And even that nonsensical number keeps shrinking and changing.

Kanazawa wonders aloud if that should be worrying. I have to say “no, Doc, it’s not.” Here’s why. Look at this chart below. It shows the correlation between intelligence and incidence of “binge drinking,” as defined using the modern absurdity of five drinks in a row.


But what this chart really says is that the most intelligent among us have just under five drinks one and a half times a year, roughly three times every two years. The horror! Or is it?

Even “controlling for age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, parental status, education, earnings, political attitudes, religiosity, general satisfaction with life, taking medication for stress, experience of stress without taking medication, frequency of socialization with friends, number of sex partners in the last 12 months, childhood family income, mother’s education, and father’s education,” the smarter you are as a child, the more you’ll apparently drink as an adult. Isn’t it at least possible that the intelligent people are on to something? Maybe it’s not such a terrible thing after all.

Another psychologist who also writes for Psychology Today, Stanton Peele, wrote sort of a rebuttal to Kanazawa. In Are More Intelligent People More Likely to be Alcoholics?, he ponders.

So, we can ask, is getting drunk ‘once every other month or so good, bad, or neutral? Is it harmless — even beneficial? Is it a social convention? An exploration of the universe? Fun for people who are better off and can spare the time and who can protect themselves while having a night out drinking? Or is this behavior pathological, a precursor to alcoholism? Specifically, are more intelligent people more likely to be alcoholics?

To this, he posits three possibilities.

  • Although smarter people (as measured in childhood) get drunk more, they are less likely than dull people to become alcoholics. Does that mean that they are inured against alcoholism? The dominant theory here would be that being smart is a protective life asset.
  • They are just as likely to become alcoholics. Which would still be somewhat counterintuitive, since despite getting drunk far more often than dull people, they are no more likely to succumb to alcoholism.
  • Smart people are more likely to be alcoholics. This could follow from several theories of behavior: smart people tempt fate by drinking more, and thus they are more likely to become alcoholics. Or, smart people are inherently more likely to be alcoholics — perhaps being smart makes them more acutely aware of the world’s problems, or creates other damaging emotional states.

Which, he notes, is odd, since it would seem to suggest “childhood intelligence is a risk factor for alcoholism.” Are parents putting their children at risk by sending them to good schools, making them do their homework or encouraging them to read? Peele declares this to be something of a “quandary — something most people generally value leads to a behavior of which we disapprove.” And Kanazawa concludes that since “more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to engage in binge drinking and getting drunk,” then “occasional drunkenness is incompatible with regular moderate drinking.”

The fallacy with both these lines of thought, I believe, is that occasional drunkenness may not be the demon the medical community has come to believe. In their zeal to quantify everything, they’ve removed the problems in problem drinking and reduced it to a simple formula that clearly doesn’t work. By their standards, I’m an undisputed binge drinker, and yet I’d warrant I’m drunk less than many people. I can state clearly and unequivocally that I’m not an alcoholic, having grown up with and around countless actual problem drinkers. And without trying to sound too egotistical, I’m not an idiot, at least. I did reasonably well in school. Maybe that’s why I drink more now? Since most of the people I know also drink a fair amount, does that means beer drinkers tend to be smarter than non-drinkers? My anecdotal evidence says yes. But then I’m very biased. Don’t we all want to believe we have smart friends? Maybe, but I’m just happy if they like good beer. Of course, that may possibly be one and the same thing.


  1. beerman49 says

    Great article, & I agree 100% w/your last paragraph! It’s certainly true of the “regulars” @ my “local” (Elevation 66 in El Cerrito) – there are math teachers, computer geeks, a retired history prof (who’s just turned 80 & a marvelous conversationalist about social issues), computer geeks, you name it.

    My problem is with the academic definition of “intelligence” (as quantified by Stanford-Binet tests & their successors). Intelligence is an intangible that can’t be quantified by a test in which there is only one “correct” answer – the test designers have no clue that there’s more than one way to solve a problem (don’t get me started on “textbook logic”)/interpret a question. I want no part of MENSA, tho I know I could pass their test. They’re the prime example of what Nixon’s 1st VP Spiro T Agnew called “effete, impudent intellectual snobs”.

    The brain is & always will be the least understood part of the human body, as it’s by far the most complex organ we have within ourselves. Modern technology has & will continue to make the understanding easier, but there’ll never be a way to track synapses 100%.

  2. Justin says

    I would have thought a lot of intelligent people drink more because they are more susceptible to bouts of depression. I use alcohol as a way to escape from the fact that hardly anyone I meet in my day to day life is even halfway close to my level.

  3. Dulcetta says

    I would think that there are two reasons why more intelligent people drink more later in life:

    1. At a younger age, they are more concerned with doing well and pursuing their goals. They consider themselves to be above such childish behavior as “getting wasted” on a Friday night. They miss out on the party years in young adulthood because they are trying to prove themselves and become substantial members of society. In later years, once they’ve established themselves, they’re ready to take a risk. They’re tired of playing it safe and are finally ready to let their hair down. Having missed out on “partying” when they are younger, they overdo it a bit…

    2. When someone grows up as an “intelligent” child, certain expectations arise. They are told and it is presumed that they will naturally be more successful than their peers. They also believe that they’ll have a profound impact on the world. If this doesn’t pan out and they see that the class clown who smoked weed on a regular basis is more successful than them, it can kind of suck. This leads to depression and drinking can be a nice escape.

    • Rob says

      Your first comment makes a lot of sense.

      I have another theory to add to it, though.

      We are often told, through the media and the government, about the evils of alcohol and how bad it can be. But these claims are rarely linked to actual studies. There are studies on extreme cases that do show dangers, but as far as anything less than extremes, there is a dearth of well-documented studies, at least compared to the number of claims made.

      And when we are kids, we may well believe what our parents tell us, as we grow up, we question things. More intelligent people tend to question things more. And when we see claims of dangers (regarding frequent but not excessive, or excessive but not frequent drinking) that aren’t backed up with hard research, we can easily assume that it is simply a result of people who either have an agenda or are being over-cautious. So we discount the many claims that aren’t backed up with research. Personally, I do the same with smokeless tobacco — actual research does not match with frequent claims regarding the dangers for non-smokers. The same goes with moderate, but frequent drinking — claims do not match research.

      So, what it comes down to, at least for me, is that I disregard the non-backed-up claims, and I do what I see good results from. In the case of tobacco (nicotine specifically) I see positive results in the lessening of a neurological disorder, so I continue to dip. In the case of alcohol, I see benefits in that it helps me to relax and get my mind off things short-term (a break from the stress, in other words, and a break from stress can be healthy), and it’s just plain enjoyable.

      So I do what I see benefits from, as long as I don’t see cold hard research showing dangers. I drink moderately but frequently, and I dip. And as a result, I get a break from my neurological disorder, and I get a break from stress, which leaves me feeling better equipped to deal with the stresses the next day. And I disregard the over-stated claims of dangers.

  4. Al says

    I drink to slow myself down sometimes. Especially when my brain goes out of control and spins like crazy even when I’m not doing any particular thinking. It scares me a little bit. But if I drink a glass of Chardonnay while I work, I’m less likely to have out of control brain spinning. Has anybody else experienced the same problem?

    • Angela says

      I personally don’t drink while doing schoolwork or things of that nature, but my humanities teacher admitted to me once that she drinks wine when she grades the essays. Maybe there is some relation. I’ll have to try it one day!

  5. Jess says

    I would think intelligent people have so much going on in their heads that they just want to get drunk and silly and forget about as much as possible

  6. Glen says

    It’s all a little more complex than the research suggests.

    Firstly I drink because I can. Id class myself in the more intelligent category although academically I wasn’t great.

    I think and see the world in a different way to a lot of the people I am around. Not better or worse. Just different. This creates somewhat of a jarring to my consciousness so I drink to bring my line of thought it to a much more linear thinking. It means I can relax.

    I also drink a lot because I like the extended lucid thinking but that doesn’t last. You end up drunk regardless. Which wastes that thinking to a degree.

    If I was to hypothesise it would be that more intelligent people generally think more, which leads to more extreme behaviour. I would estimate that there is also a link between BDSM and more intelligent people for example. It’s about finding extremes at which things are not controllable but abstract or new.

    Finding extremes is a difficult thing to do when you understand the world/life/universe in such a way.

  7. Mary says

    I drank because I liked to drink. A lot. And now I don’t, because it didn’t really work out that well and I’m smart enough to stop doing what doesn’t work. There.

  8. Ein Steyn says

    My experience is much the opposite of this. Drinkers in my estimation tend to be dim-witted dullards, while the non-drinkers are intellectually active and cognitively alive. The best thinkers, among the people I know, are the ones who embrace thinking and never to anything to artificially impede their natural gifts, while the drinkers, even the most intelligent ones, are much like runners racing in leaden boots, either from the actual alcohol or the lingering after-effects.

    • says

      Hilarious. You’re obviously too smart for alcohol, Mr. Steyn. But smart enough to use such a clever fake name and e-mail address, commenting from your office in Kentucky. How’s the weather near West Liberty? Looks like it might rain tonight. Since Morgan is a dry county, I’m not sure you can be much of an “expert” on the subject, and most likely you’re hardly an objective teetotaler.

  9. agopolis23 says

    With regard to your analysis of the graph, and given the definition of binge drinking, wouldn’t it be “5 or more” drinks in a row? (Key words being “or more”)

    You mention “just under” 5 drinks, but as any adult male who has drank before knows, “Just under 5 drinks” will not get your average 200 lb adult male “drunk”..

    • says

      I’m not exactly sure what the point of your comment is. My point was that one only need to have at least 5 drinks in order to be lumped into the higher category for statistical purposes. The “or more” part that you think is the key is meaningless in this context. We have no way of knowing how the data would change if it was 6, or 10, or whatever. And as social scientists have been narrowing the definition of binge drinking, they’ve artificially made the problem appear to be growing.

      I do know that “‘Just under 5 drinks’ will not get your average 200 lb adult male ‘drunk'” but I don'[t see what point your making by that statement. The point was that it’s absurd that the 5 drink barrier is significant, that under five represents safety while one more drink creates danger and risk and worry.

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