Do smart people drink more? Here's some science to ease your hangover

Alcohol consumption has been found to correlate positively with verbal ability, evolutionary adaptability and going to university.

Marco Müller.
The film critic and producer Marco Müller in Rome. In Denmark wine drinkers tend to be smarter than beer drinkers. Photograph: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images.

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It’s the booziest time of the year, and also the most hung over: According to one study, 96 per cent of Americans have been hung over at work after a holiday party, or know someone who has. Creative hangover cures like dried sour plums and poached duck embryos may ease (or exacerbate) physical symptoms, but here’s something that might help the self-reproach: You can blame your hangover on your high IQ, because studies show there might be a positive correlation between intelligence and alcohol consumption.

The sooner you talk, the sooner you drink

Finnish researchers gathered data on 3,000 fraternal and identical twins and found that the sibling who was the first to develop verbal ability—speaking words, reading and using expressive language—also tended to be the first to try alcohol and to drink more heavily throughout adolescence. Verbal development may be correlated with social intelligence; the verbally precocious twin also had, on average, more friends, and could be more likely to end up in social situations where alcohol is present: “Good language skills reduce the likelihood of peer rejection .... higher social activity predicts more frequent drinking in adolescence,” write the authors.

Earlier speaking age is also associated with better academic performance throughout middle and high school and a higher chance of graduating from college—and achieving higher levels of education is also correlated with higher alcohol consumption. The authors hypothesize that intelligence is correlated with curiosity and a desire for new experiences: “Cognitive performance and reading abilities in childhood are related to higher stimulation-seeking tendencies.”

Drinkers are evolutionarily adaptive

According to the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis posited by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, the human brain has trouble dealing with situations that did not exist in the Pleistocene environment we evolved in, but some brains (less intelligent ones) have more trouble than others. Writes Kanazawa, “the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment ... general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific psychological adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems.” Alcohol consumption is “evolutionarily novel”—humans began cultivating and consuming alcohol only about 10,000 years ago (though we may have ingested trace amounts of ethanol in fermented fruits before that)—so this model would predict a link between intelligence and drinking.

When Kanazawa analyzed data on UK children, he found that link. Drawing on the results of the National Child Development Study, which tracked for 50 years all British babies born during one week in March 1958, Kanazawa found that kids who scored higher on IQ tests grew up to drink larger quantities of alcohol on a more regular basis than their less intelligent peers. He evaluated other factors, including religion, frequency of church attendance, social class, parents’ education and self-reported satisfaction with life, and found that intelligence before age 16 was second only to gender in predicting alcohol consumption at age 23. In Kanazawa’s model, illicit drugs constitute another evolutionarily novel experience—and he (and others) have also found a link between high IQ and experimentation with drugs. In Kanazawa’s study, the higher a respondent’s IQ before age 16, the more psychoactive substances he or she had tried by age 42. Another study found that 30-year-old women who had earned high scores on an IQ test at age five were more than twice as likely to have smoked weed or used cocaine in the previous year; men who had scored highly on IQ tests as children were 50 percent more likely to have recently consumed amphetamines or ecstasy.

Smart people prefer wine

A study that compared 1,800 Danish men’s IQ scores to their drinking habits from the 1950s through 1990s found a strong correlation between high IQ in young adulthood and preference for wine over beer later in life, regardless of socioeconomic status. (Very few respondents—less than 1 per cent—preferred spirits; this preference was unrelated to IQ.) Twenty-two per cent of men who were grouped into the highest of five IQ categories at age 18 preferred wine in their 30s, compared to 9 per cent of the men grouped in the lowest IQ category. By their 40s, the differences were even more pronounced: 39 per cent of the men with the highest IQs, but only 13 per cent of those with the lowest, preferred wine. According to the paper, “in the predominantly beer-drinking Danish population ... wine drinking has traditionally been a sign of high social standing.” The correlation among income, education, social status and intelligence could explain their findings.

College graduates drink more

Researchers at the London School of Economics examined data on thousands of British adults in their 30s and found a positive correlation between educational attainment and daily drinking. The relationship was stronger for women: Women who had graduated from college were 86 per cent more likely than women who hadn’t graduated high school to admit to drinking on most days. Possible explanations include: “a more intensive social life that encourages alcohol intake; a greater engagement into traditionally male spheres of life; a greater social acceptability of alcohol use and abuse; more exposure to alcohol use during formative years; and greater postponement of childbearing and its responsibilities among the better educated.” The link between education and drinking holds for American adults: According to the U.S. Department of Health, rates of alcohol consumption rise with education level, with 68.4 per cent of college graduates describing themselves as drinkers, compared with 35.2 per cent for adults without high school diplomas—perhaps reflecting people bringing the binge-drinking habits they learn on campus into adulthood.

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