Smarter People Drink, Which Makes Me Feel Stupid

by Bill Brenner on January 26, 2012

I’m pissed off about an article in Psychology Today that suggests smarter people consume more alcohol. As someone who’s sober, the article is kind of insulting. After all, I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person.

Mood music:

Here’s a snippet from the article by Satoshi Kanazawa:

Drinking alcohol is evolutionarily novel, so the Hypothesis would predict that more intelligent people drink more alcohol than less intelligent people.

Human consumption of alcohol, however, was unintentional, accidental, and haphazard until about 10,000 years ago.  The intentional fermentation of fruits and grain to yield ethanol arose only recently in human history.  The production of beer, which relies on a large amount of grain, and that of wine, which similarly requires a large amount of grapes, could not have taken place before the advent of agriculture around 8,000 BC and the consequent agricultural surplus.  Archeological evidence dates the production of beer and wine to Mesopotamia at about 6,000 BC.  The origin of distilled spirits is far more recent, and is traced to Middle East or China at about 700 AD.  The word alcohol – al kohl – is Arabic in origin, like many other words that begin with “al,” like algebra, algorithm, alchemy, and Al Gore.

Indicators of alcohol consumption in the Add Health data include the frequency of binge drinking (drinking five or more units of alcohol in one sitting) and the frequency of getting drunk.  That such behavior is detrimental to health and has few, if any, positive consequences, is irrelevant for the Hypothesis.  It does not predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to engage in healthy and beneficial behavior.  Instead, it predicts that more intelligent individuals are more likely to engage in evolutionarily novel behavior.  Since the consumption of modern alcoholic beverages – including binge drinking and getting drunk – is evolutionarily novel, the Hypothesis would predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to engage in it, and the empirical data from the UK and the US confirm it.

His hypothesis pisses me off because there are days when I hate being sober. I’d give anything for a few drops of wine, for that mellow feeling I get after a couple glasses.

It’s also been drilled into my head that addiction isn’t about being smart or stupid. The perfect description comes from this “West Wing” episode where Leo, the chief of staff, tries to explain what alcohol does to him:

As Leo says, his brain works differently. It has nothing to do with being smart or stupid.

Nevertheless, there are days where my addictions make me feel supremely stupid. It has certainly compelled me to do stupid things in the past.

To be fair, the article doesn’t really say that only smart people drink a lot. Reading it just pisses me off because I can’t drink anymore.

I can’t eat flour or sugar anymore. Lots of smart people love those two ingredients.

I can’t smoke anymore. Lots of smart people smoke.

I won’t lie: I used to think I looked very smart and sophisticated with a cigar hanging from my lips.

Some would call that stupid. Whatever.

The bottom line is that I can’t drink or do the other things anymore. It’s not because I lack intelligence. It’s because that intelligence is powerless against the mental impulse that screams out for a good feeling; for a break.

Mine is a particularly strange tale of addiction. My biggest problem was compulsive binge eating. My drinking accelerated after I put the flour and sugar down because I needed a crutch. Then I realized I needed the wine a little too much, so I put that down and started on the cigars for a crutch.

Now I don’t smoke anymore, and there are days where I struggle to find a good release. Yoga doesn’t do it for me. As Erin points out, yoga could do it for me, but I’m prejudiced against it. Fair enough.

Moderation doesn’t exist in my world. It’s all or nothing.

That doesn’t make me dumb. But it might mean I’m a victim of dumb luck.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

JJ June 7, 2012 at 11:52 am

Michael and I were having this discussion the other day. If anything, I’d say that people that can’t shut their brains off (maybe they’re smarter, maybe they just can’t control it), tend to drink more, because it’s the ONLY relief they get, and the only time the little neurons aren’t on rapid-fire.

I’m one of those people. I think it’s a weakness to need to drink, or to indulge that more. It’s only a temporary escape and that’s really rather ignorant, in my opinion. I do it, and I hate it, which is why I try to stick to yoga and meditation as much as I can. Maybe for those that don’t like the idea of yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong would be a better fit. I love those too.

I understand how you’d be pissed because you can’t do it. And I’m sure I’d feel the same way. But you’ve made a smarter decision, to exercise the control to NOT do it, and not do a lot of things. That’s smart, and that’s above and beyond what most of us mere mortals can handle. No one can tell you how you should feel, but for what it’s worth, I admire you for what you do (and don’t do).

David July 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm

What JJ said is pretty much spot on as to the why for some. My mind simply will not let me be at peace much. I use Piano and music to help but even then I have to find time to do that etc. Maybe meditation or Tai Chi would help. I need to think that through…just not too much. 😉

Anyway, as always thanks for the thought provoking work.


Tom March 28, 2016 at 5:10 pm

I can say I’m well educated and considered pretty smart, but I don’t drink because I don’t like feeling stupid. It probably would be better if I could feel stupid and not care, but I really don’t like it even when I tried drinking alone. I’m definitely not saying people that drink are stupid. I’m well aware that people much smarter than I am, drink at various levels.

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