Study links higher intelligence to lower psychological well-being in freshmen college students

Developmental factors linking intelligence and well-being in young adults may differ from those found in children and adolescents, according to researchers from James Madison University in Virginia.

The study, designed to examine the relationship between intelligence and well-being in young adults, was conducted by Clifton J. Wigtil and his colleague Gregg R. Henriques and published in Psychology of Well-Being: Theory, Research and Practice.

Between 2003 and 2005, three samples of freshmen students were assessed on measures of well-being prior to the beginning of each fall term; well-being scores were then matched to SAT scores.

Researchers utilized a reduced version of Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Well-Being (SPWB) measurement to assess well-being in their sample of 3,829 student participants. Researchers were interested in evaluating whether intelligence (using both SAT verbal and math component scores) had a positive relationship with the autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth and purpose in life subscales of the SPWB.

Contrary to what researchers anticipated, rather than personal well-being scores (PWB) being higher among more intelligent students, scores tended to be lower on four out the five tested subscales of the Ryff measurement.

“This study revealed that for the sample of young adults, more intelligent students were, the lower their PWB tended to be four of the five tested dimensions,” Wigtil and Henriques wrote in the study. “The extent to which other factors, such as personality and or gender, interact with intelligence in its relationship to PWB, is a subject rich in potential future study. Because childhood intelligence has proven to be a positive predictor of later occupational status, and adulthood intelligence of current occupational status, it seems likely that the more intelligent young adults are, the greater likelihood that they can develop into the most productive and influential members of society, yet without considering other factors such as PWB, such efforts may be incomplete.”

According to the study authors, these data are “inconsistent with findings from previous studies of adolescents and children. This may be due to the developmental differences between young adults versus adolescents and children.”

Researchers did find, however, that the well-being subscale of “Positive Relations with Others” (PR) and SAT Verbal scores confirmed a curvilinear relationship, supporting the original hypothesis that higher levels of intelligence would indicate lower scores on the PR subscale.

Consequently, this finding supports the concept that highly gifted students (i.e., highly intelligent students) may benefit from interventions that address possible social isolation that is theorized to occur in this group of students.

As the study authors conclude: “research into effective interventions into PWB for such students, as well as how they may be tailored in order to account for possible interactive effects of development, gender, or personality, could ultimately improve the lives of these individuals with great potential to success and improve the world.”