Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Josephine Hellberg of University College London empirically demonstrated that "more intelligent children, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, are more likely to grow up to consume more alcohol." Using large nationally representative datasets, the authors showed that "there is a clear monotonic association between childhood intelligence (measured at age 16) and the frequency of alcohol consumption in their 20's, 30's, and 40's."
So we know that smarter people tend to drink more when they get older. But does this mean they also get an earlier start on drinking, perhaps in adolescence?
Now a team of researchers from Duke University-Kristen Peairs, Dawn Eichen, Martha Putallaz, Philip Costanzo, and Christina Grimes-investigated whether gifted seventh graders were more or less likely to have tried alcohol than their non-gifted counterparts, and have published their findings in the current issue of the journal Gifted Child Quarterly.
Dr. Peairs-soon to be a postdoctoral fellow at the Duke University Talent Identification Program-told me that "The study is really the first to look at the adjustment profile of gifted students who have tried alcohol by the 7th grade. We found that gifted students experimented with alcohol at the same rate as non-gifted students in 7th grade. Interestingly, gifted students who had tried alcohol did not have the same negative adjustment profile as non-gifted students who have tried alcohol. However, this subset of gifted students may be more at risk for future adjustment difficulties compared to their gifted counterparts who have abstained from using alcohol and should be further studied for that reason."
So gifted students have tried alcohol at the same rate as their non-gifted counterparts in the 7th grade. But how does this link to Kanazawa and Hellberg's finding that smarter people are more likely to drink more in their 20's, 30's, and 40's?
In Kanazawa's Psychology Today article Why Intelligent People Drink More Alcohol, one of the datasets he used was the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) which was from an American population.
One of the key findings of the Duke study was that gifted students had tried alcohol at similar rates as their non-gifted counterparts in the 7th grade in the U.S. The students from their study were drawn from a magnet school in a midsized Southeastern city and part of the sample was identified as gifted and the other part was not. Therefore reasonable comparison groups from the Add Health sample would be the bright (non-gifted) and very bright (gifted) groups in the graph. As can be seen, these groups do not differ much in their alcohol consumption seven years later which aligns with the findings from the Duke study.
What about the hypothesis that some gifted students might pay a social price for their intellectual talent and perhaps drink because of this?
The Duke study could not provide a firm test of this hypothesis, but the researchers did note that "Although gifted adolescents may possess protective factors that likely inhibit the use of alcohol, some gifted youth may be vulnerable to initiating alcohol use during adolescence as experimenting with alcohol may be one way gifted youth choose to compensate for the social price (whether real or perceived) of their academic talents."
So do gifted students try alcohol earlier than non-gifted students?
Dr. Peairs noted that "the measure used in the study only assessed whether the 7th grader had tried alcohol in his lifetime rather than actual age of first use." She went on to say that "although the rates of having tried alcohol were the same, very few 7th grade gifted students reported currently using alcohol in the 30 days prior to completing the survey, suggesting their frequency of alcohol use may be much less."
Dr. Kanazawa said of the Duke findings that they are "largely consistent with the theory that, while gifted students do everything else better than regular students, they do not avoid alcohol better than regular students."
© 2011 by Jonathan Wai