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How Do Smart Kids Become Addicts?

From the outside, addictive behavior doesn't seem very intelligent. In fact, people with substance use disorders are often aware that their substance use is having negative effects on their lives but they can't seem to do anything about it. We've known for decades--even centuries, in the case of alcohol--that certain substances can be addictive and cause all kinds of problems. We typically think of smart behavior as leading to better outcomes, which clearly makes addiction not a smart behavior. How is it then that smart people become addicted?  It's not just the case that smart people fall into the trap of addiction just like everyone else; many studies have found that the higher your IQ, the more likely you are to use drugs and alcohol. And the effect is large. One study examined data from more than 8,000 people who were given an IQ test at age five and then surveyed every five years.  At age 30, the participants who had tested above average at age five were twice as likely to have done hard drugs--including cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstacy--within the past year. Why is it that higher intelligence appears to make you more likely to use substances that are bad for you in so many ways? We don't know for sure, but some possible explanations.

Addiction has little to do with intelligence. 

First, it's important to note that while intelligence does make you more prone to use drugs and alcohol, it doesn't seem to protect you from becoming addicted. The mechanisms that lead to addiction have little to do with the mental faculties measured by IQ tests. A longitudinal study from the University of California, Berkeley followed more than 100 children from the 1970s to 1990 and evaluated their substance use patterns as teens. No single addictive personality emerged from this study but they did discover a common trait in participants who used drugs and alcohol excessively--they had poor self-regulation. This doesn't just refer to the ability to abstain from drugs or alcohol; it also means the ability to calm oneself from being overly excited or the ability to deviate from obsessive or habitual behaviors. So teens who used the most drugs and alcohol may be overly impulsive, excessively anxious, or both. However, these traits can easily coexist with high intelligence. 

Intelligent people may be more insulated from the negative effects of substance use.

Higher IQ is associated with higher income, which may help insulate people from the consequences of their substance use. There are several reasons IQ and income are related. First, in today's knowledge economy, a higher IQ tends to lead to higher paying jobs. And parents with a higher IQ tend to have children with a higher IQ. Second, while it is difficult to raise a child's IQ, there are plenty of ways to lower it. Poor or inadequate nutrition and lack of stimulation are among the most common ways a child can be kept from her intellectual potential and those problems are more common among poorer people. Children may also suffer neglect if their parents are forced to make a choice between paying the rent and taking care of the kids. So lower incomes and lower IQs tend to go together. Where this matters for substance use is that money helps insulate you from the consequences of excessive drug or alcohol use. If your family has a good lawyer, for example, you are less likely to end up in jail for a drug offense, which would perhaps make you less cautious about using. And someone working at a fast food restaurant is more likely to get fired for a substance use issue than someone working in a high-skilled, higher paying job that's harder to restaff. The relative lack of consequences for higher income people may allow substance use continue longer and develop into addiction.

Intelligent people may be more open to novel experiences.

There are several ways in which more intelligent people may be open to novel experiences and why this might lead to more substance use. One iteration is related to a theory by the controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. His theory is that general intelligence--which is what IQ tests are supposed to measure--is linked not to better outcomes but to evolutionary novelty. The idea is that while other animals rely mostly on instinct to survive, humans have thrived because of our ability to behave in new ways when confronted by new circumstances. His theory predicts, then, that the more intelligent someone is, the more likely she will adopt an evolutionarily novel behavior, even if that behavior is unhealthy, as in the case of drugs--especially new drugs like ecstasy or amphetamines.  A less grand but perhaps better supported theory is that more intelligent people simply get bored more easily. At least one study  has found a link between the dopaminergic system, intelligence, and openness to experience. That is, more intelligent people may absorb new experiences more quickly and then move on to something more interesting. Substance use can be a way of seeking novel experiences or making mundane experiences more interesting. 

Intelligent people may be more prone to mental health issues.

More intelligent people may be prone to mental health issues, which increases their risk of developing a substance use disorder. One study surveyed more than 3,000 members of the high-IQ society Mensa and asked about various mental and physical health issues including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. The study found that Mensa members were almost three times as likely as the general public to suffer from mood disorders, almost four times as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, and three times as likely to suffer from attention deficit disorders. All of these conditions correlate with a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. 

Recovering from substance abuse isn't easy. It's a life-long process of turning away from dangerous behaviors and turning to yourself to find peace. Call Stonewater Adolescent Recovery Center now if you or an adolescent you know is in need of support. Our residential treatment program can help you get clean and put you on the path to trusting your angel, rerouting your internal GPS to health, happiness, and self-love. Listen to that quiet voice and get help today: (662) 478-9463