A person’s level of intelligence was related to their psychological response to COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality. The study found that more intelligent people tended to be less happy with their lives during the pandemic than their less intelligent counterparts.
The new findings provide evidence that higher intelligence can have a downside in the modern world and support a growing body of research known as the savanna theory of happiness.
“My collaborators, Professor Norman P. Li (Singapore Management University) and Dr. Jose C. Yong (Northumbria University), have proposed the savanna theory of happiness, which avers that modern happiness is affected not only by what the individual circumstances mean 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,” explained study author Satoshi Kanazawa, a reader in management at the London School of Economics.
“The theory further predicts that the effect of such ancestral consequences of current situations on modern happiness is greater for less intelligent individuals. In the past, we have tested and supported the theory, by showing, for example, that being an ethnic minority makes one less happy (because, in the ancestral environment, coming in contact with others with different appearances, languages, cultures, and customs usually happened under the conditions of conflict, conquest, war, occupation, and slavery); population density decreases happiness (because our ancestors lived on vast savannas with extremely low population density, and crowded conditions meant impending breakdown of social order based on personal ties and resource shortage and conflict); frequent contact with friends makes us happy (because our ancestors were a physically vulnerable, social species in hostile environments, dependent on friends and allies for support, and ostracism was tantamount to a death penalty); and sunshine makes us happy (because humans are a diurnal species heavily dependent on vision for navigation, and darkness represented danger of predation and attack). In all of these cases, the effect of such ancestral consequences of the current situations on happiness were significantly greater among less intelligent individuals.”
“We then wondered what would happen if individuals found themselves in an entirely evolutionarily novel situation that has no ancestral analog, and therefore no ancestral consequences,” Kanazawa continued. “It just so happened that the whole world was in such a situation currently – the situation of COVID-19 global 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. So infectious diseases – let alone epidemics and global pandemics – did not exist in the ancestral environment and are therefore entirely evolutionarily novel. We wanted to find out what would happen to individual happiness in such an entirely evolutionarily novel situation.”
For their new study, Kanazawa and his colleagues analyzed two large, nationally representative datasets. They first analyzed data from 5,178 individuals who are part of the National Child Development Study, an ongoing longitudinal study that has tracked British respondents since their birth in 1958. Next, they examined data from 4,223 individuals who are part of the British Cohort Study, another ongoing longitudinal study that has tracked respondents since their birth in 1970.
Participants in both studies completed multiple intelligence tests during childhood and also regularly provided assessments of their satisfaction with life. Importantly, the studies also included an assessment of life satisfaction in May 2020, during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers found that more intelligent individuals generally tended to be more satisfied with life throughout adulthood compared to 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 childhood IQ below 90 became more satisfied.
“Because what we today call general intelligence originally evolved to solve evolutionarily novel adaptive problems, more intelligent individuals are better able to comprehend evolutionarily novel entities and situations and their consequences,” Kanazawa told PsyPost. “When such entities and situations are entirely negative – as global pandemics are; they have so many negative consequences and virtually no positive consequences – then more intelligent individuals are more likely to become less happy because they are better able to anticipate the negative consequences of such evolutionarily novel situations.”
“Our analysis of two independent, prospectively longitudinal, large population samples from the United Kingdom confirmed our prediction. In general, and before COVID-19, more intelligent individuals have always been happier than less intelligent individuals throughout their lives, albeit not because they were more intelligent but because they earned more, were more likely to be married, and were healthier. However, during COVID-19, more intelligent individuals became less happy than less intelligent individuals for the first time in their lives. In fact, while more intelligent individuals became less happy after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, less intelligent individuals became happier.”
The findings held even after the researchers controlled for sex, education, earnings, current marital status, and self-rated health. But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. For example, it is unclear how well the findings generalize to other populations.
“While our analyses of two independent population samples showed identical results, they nonetheless come from one nation (the United Kingdom),” Kanazawa said. “Our hypothesis will need to be tested in other nations and cultures. However, I have argued elsewhere, in my 2020 article in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, that all evolutionary psychological hypotheses must be tested in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) nations, because they have to do with evolved human nature, and people in WEIRD nations are better able to execute and follow the dictates of evolved human nature more freely with less social, legal and institutional constraints. Our hypothesis will therefore need to be tested in other WEIRD nations besides the United Kingdom.”
A series of studies have now provided empirical support for the savanna theory of happiness. But the researchers noted that there are still many avenues for future research.
“Our hypothesis also predicts that more intelligent individuals are better able to anticipate and comprehend the consequences of evolutionarily novel positive situations that make us happy,” Kanazawa explained. “When encountered with such evolutionarily novel positive situations, more intelligent individuals should become happier than less intelligent individuals do. This second implication of the same hypothesis will also need to be tested.”
“In addition, 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 of the negative consequences are anticipated, 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 are. So the happiness disadvantage of more intelligent individuals should decrease as the evolutionarily novel situation continues. This implication will also need to be tested.”
Kanazawa said the new findings also highlight 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 Isn’t Always the Smart One, I hope our latest article forthcoming in the Journal of Personality will further demonstrate that general intelligence is not a universally desirable quality and more intelligent individuals are not universally better off than less intelligent individuals are,” he said. “Oftentimes, more intelligent individuals are worse off than less intelligent individuals are. Intelligence is not a measure of human worth, and we should stop regarding it as such.”
The study, “When intelligence hurts and ignorance is bliss: Global pandemic as an evolutionarily novel threat to happiness“, was published February 25, 2022.