Two studies on gifted people found that those with exceptionally successful careers are healthier or equally healthy as their less successful peers across a number of health indicators. Additionally, exceptionally successful men tended to have more biological children then their less successful peers. However, women with exceptionally successful careers tended to have fewer biological children than less successful women.
The study was published in the Perspectives on Psychological Science.
A century ago, Sigmund Freud — the father of psychoanalysis — proposed that extremely successful people pay a heavy price in health for their success. Freud gave several examples to illustrate his claim: A woman falling to mental illness after succeeding in a long struggle to become the legal wife of her partner; an academic who struggled for many years to take his mentor’s post after mentor’s retirement, only to lose confidence in own abilities and fall to depression after achieving this goal.
Decades later, Steven Berglas gave a detailed analysis of what became known as the “wrecked-by-success” phenomenon. Berglas wrote that it is “the condition that develops when the rewards of success expose an individual to a variety of psychologically stressful situations; these render him vulnerable to disorders ranging from depression and drug abuse to self-inflicted failures and even suicide.” The phenomenon has also been described in arts and literature. But is this a systematic effect valid in general or were these authors focusing on special cases that drew their attention because they were special?
To test for the existence of the “wrecked-by-success” phenomenon, Harrison J. Kell and his colleagues conducted two studies. In the first study they analyzed data on the three most talented cohorts from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, totaling around 1800 participants (642 female).
These cohorts consisted of top 1%, top 0,5% and top 0,01% (respectively) of people on measures of cognitive ability when they were 13, between 1972 and 1983. They were studied longitudinally over the next 35 years. Survey data used in this study was collected in 2012, 2013 and 2018 depending on the group.
The aim of the second study was to test the findings of the first study on a group consisting of 714 elite STEM doctoral students in 1992, with equal numbers of men and women. These students were surveyed again between 2017 and 2018, when they were around 50 years of age, and data were collected from 496 students (49% women).
In both studies, researchers asked participants about their income and to complete assessments of their physical and mental health conditions, psychological adjustment and health, attitude towards aging, relationships and family, and health behaviors (sleep, alcohol use, smoking and exercise). Participants were divided into two groups based on their income. 25% participants with highest income were considered the exceptionally successful group, while the remaining 75% of participants were considered less successful.
Notably, both of these groups in both studies consisted of very intelligent people who differed in the degree of success in their careers assessed through income, allowing the effects of the known association between intelligence and health to be controlled.
Contrary to the expectations of the “wrecked-by-success” hypothesis, the exceptionally successful group was either healthier or of equal health than the less successful group in both studies and across all studied cohorts. There were more people with no health problems in the exceptionally successful group and those that reported health problems had less of them on average compared to the less successful group. This was the case for both men and women.
There were variations in the size of differences, but average values of all health indicators were either in favor of the exceptionally successful group or the groups were equal.
However, differences were found when comparing men and women and their family relations. While men from the exceptionally successful groups had more biological children, were more often married and less often divorced compared to their less successful peers, women from the exceptionally successful group had fewer biological children on average then their less successful peers.
The difference in percentages of married and divorced female participants between the two groups were too small to be statistically significant, but those differences in both studies showed a bit higher percent of married women and a bit lower percent of divorced in the less successful group of women.
“Our results do not support the idea that exceptionally accomplished individuals are wrecked by their career success… Perhaps the persistence of the “high price of success” and related concepts such as the Faustian bargain is due to how conspicuous it is when it does occur—causing individuals to overestimate its prevalence…”, the authors conclude.
Although the study provides strong evidence against the “wrecked-by-success” hypothesis it also has certain limitations – all the people included in the study were successful in their careers and extremely gifted. Results might have been different if success of people with more common ability levels were studied. Also, not all successful careers need be intellectual and results might be different for such careers. Finally, the study design does not allow cause-and-effect conclusions.
The paper, “Wrecked by Success? Not to Worry”, was authored by Harrison J. Kell, Kira O. McCabe, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow.