A person’s level of intelligence was linked to their psychological response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research published in Personality Magazine. The study found that smarter people tended to be less happy with their lives than their less smart peers during the pandemic.
The new findings provide evidence that higher intelligence may have a downside in the modern world, and support a growing body of research known as the savannah theory of happiness.
“My collaborators, Professor Norman P. Li (Singapore Management University) and Dr. Jose C. Yong (Northumbria University), have proposed the Savannah Theory of Happiness, which asserts that modern happiness is influenced not only by the importance of individual circumstances in the current environment, but also by what they would have meant in the ancestral environment, on the African savanna more than 12,000 years ago,” explains study author Satoshi Kanazawa, a senior lecturer in management at the London School of Economics.
“The theory further predicts that the impact of such ancestral consequences of current situations on modern happiness is greater in less intelligent individuals. In the past we have tested and supported the theory by showing, for example, that being in an ethnic minority makes one less happy (because one comes into contact with others in one’s ancestral environment who have a different appearance, speak a different language , having a different culture and customs usually happened in conditions of conflict, conquest, war, occupation and slavery); population density reduces happiness (because our ancestors lived in vast savannas with extremely sparse populations and cramped conditions meant an imminent collapse of social order due to personal ties and scarcity of resources and conflicts); frequent contact with friends makes us happy (because our ancestors were a physically vulnerable, social species in hostile environments, dependent on the support of friends and allies, and proscription was tantamount to the death penalty); and sunshine makes us happy (because humans are a diurnal species that rely heavily on sight for navigation, and darkness poses dangers from predators and attack). In all of these cases, the impact of such ancestral consequences of current situations on happiness was significantly greater in less intelligent individuals.”
“We then asked ourselves what would happen if individuals found themselves in a completely evolutionarily novel situation that had no ancestral analogue and therefore no ancestral consequences,” Kanazawa continued. “It just so happened that the whole world is in such a situation right now – the situation of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Infectious diseases require a large population (at least half a million), a sedentary lifestyle, and the presence of livestock, none of which existed in the ancestral environment. Infectious diseases – not to mention epidemics and global pandemics – did not exist in the ancestral environment and are therefore completely new in evolutionary terms. We wanted to find out what would happen to individual happiness in such an evolutionarily completely new situation.”
For their new study, Kanazawa and his colleagues analyzed two large, nationally representative datasets. They first analyzed data from 5,178 people who are part of the National Child Development Study, an ongoing longitudinal study that has followed British respondents since birth in 1958. Next, they looked at data from 4,223 people who are part of the British Cohort Study, another ongoing longitudinal study that has followed respondents since birth in 1970.
The participants in both studies completed several intelligence tests when they were children and also gave regular assessments of their life satisfaction. Importantly, the studies also included an assessment of life satisfaction in May 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers found that, in general, more intelligent individuals tended to be more satisfied with life in adulthood than less intelligent individuals. However, this trend changed in 2020, when those with a childhood IQ above 90 became less satisfied with their lives, while those with a child IQ below 90 became more satisfied.
“Because what we now call general intelligence originally evolved to solve evolutionarily novel adaptation problems, more intelligent individuals are better able to understand evolutionarily novel entities and situations and their consequences,” Kanazawa told PsyPost. “When such entities and situations are entirely negative — as is the case with global pandemics; they have so many negative consequences and almost no positive consequences – then more intelligent people tend to be unhappier because they can better predict the negative consequences of such evolutionarily novel situations.”
“Our longitudinal analysis of two independent, prospective, large population samples from the United Kingdom confirmed our prediction. In general, and before COVID-19, smarter people were happier than less smart people throughout their lives, not because they were smarter, but because they earned more, were more likely to be married, and were healthier. However, during COVID-19, for the first time in their lives, more intelligent individuals became less happy than less intelligent individuals. While smarter people became less happy after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, less smart people became happier.”
The results held even after the researchers controlled for gender, education, income, current marital status, and self-reported health. But the study, like all research, comes with some limitations. For example, it is unclear how well the results can be extrapolated to other populations.
“While our analyzes of two independent population samples showed identical results, they still come from one nation (the United Kingdom),” Kanazawa said. “Our hypothesis needs to be tested in other nations and cultures. However, I have argued elsewhere, in my 2020 article in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciencesthat all evolutionary psychological hypotheses must be tested in WEIRD nations (Western, educated, industrial, wealthy and democratic) because they have to do with more evolved human nature and people in WEIRD nations are better able to carry out the dictates of and to follow, human nature evolved more freely with fewer social, legal, and institutional constraints. Our hypothesis therefore needs to be tested in other WEIRD nations besides the UK.”
A number of studies have now empirically supported the savannah theory of happiness. However, the researchers noted that there are still many opportunities for future research.
“Our hypothesis also predicts that more intelligent individuals are better able to anticipate and understand the consequences of evolutionary innovations positive Situations that make us happy,” Kanazawa explained. “In such evolutionarily novel positive situations, more intelligent individuals should become happier than less intelligent individuals. This second implication of the same hypothesis also needs to be tested.”
“Moreover, our hypothesis predicts that the happiness of more intelligent individuals is more likely to suffer from evolutionarily novel negative situations especially at the beginning when most are negative consequences expected, rather than actually experienced. In fact, more intelligent individuals should be better able to mitigate the negative consequences of such evolutionarily novel situations than less intelligent individuals. The luck disadvantage of more intelligent individuals should therefore decrease as the evolutionarily new situation continues. This implication must also be examined.”
According to Kanazawa, the new findings also underscore that higher intelligence does not always have a positive impact on a person’s life.
“Following the argument and evidence I presented in my 2012 book The intelligence paradox: why the intelligent choice is not always the smart oneI hope our latest article will appear in the Personality Magazine will further show that general intelligence is not a universally desirable trait and that more intelligent people are not generally better off than less intelligent people,” he said. “Often more intelligent people are worse off than less intelligent people. intelligence is not a measure of human worth, and we should stop thinking of it as such.”
The study “When Intelligence Hurts and Ignorance is Bliss: Global Pandemic as an Evolutionary Novel Threat to Happiness” was published on February 25, 2022.