Smart people are better off with fewer friends

James Cridland/Flickr

Hell might actually be other people — at least if you’re really smart.

That’s the implication of fascinating new research published last month in the British Journal of Psychology. Evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Norman Li of Singapore Management University dig in to the question of what makes a life well-lived. While traditionally the domain of priests, philosophers and novelists, in recent years survey researchers, economists, biologists and scientists have been tackling that question.

Which makes more sense to me. At least, leaving out the priests.

Kanazawa and Li theorize that the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of our ancient ancestors form the foundation for what make us happy now. “Situations and circumstances that would have increased our ancestors’ life satisfaction in the ancestral environment may still increase our life satisfaction today,” they write…

First, they find that people who live in more densely populated areas tend to report less satisfaction with their life overall. “The higher the population density of the immediate environment, the less happy” the survey respondents said they were. Second, they find that the more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness…

But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed.

“The effect of population density on life satisfaction was therefore more than twice as large for low-IQ individuals than for high-IQ individuals,” they found. And “more intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently…”

Why would high population density cause a person to be less happy? There’s a whole body of sociological research addressing this question. But for the most visceral demonstration of the effect, simply take a 45-minute ride on a crowded rush-hour Red Line train and tell me how you feel afterward.

Kanazawa and Li’s second finding is a little more interesting. It’s no surprise that friend and family connections are generally seen as a foundational component of happiness and well-being. But why would this relationship get turned on its head for really smart people?

I posed this question to Carol Graham, a Brookings Institution researcher who studies the economics of happiness. “The findings in here suggest (and it is no surprise) that those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it … are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective,” she said…

But Kanazawa and Li’s savanna theory of happiness offers a different explanation. The idea starts with the premise that the human brain evolved to meet the demands of our ancestral environment on the African savanna, where the population density was akin to what you’d find today in, say, rural Alaska (less than one person per square kilometer). Take a brain evolved for that environment, plop it into today’s Manhattan (population density: 27,685 people per square kilometer), and you can see how you’d get some evolutionary friction.

Similarly with friendship: “Our ancestors lived as hunter–gatherers in small bands of about 150 individuals,” Kanazawa and Li explain…The typical human life has changed rapidly since then — back on the savanna we didn’t have cars or iPhones or processed food…and it’s quite possible that our biology hasn’t been able to evolve fast enough to keep up. As such, there may be a “mismatch” between what our brains and bodies are designed for, and the world most of us live in now…

There’s a twist, though, at least as Kanazawa and Li see it. Smarter people may be better equipped to deal with the new (at least from an evolutionary perspective) challenges present-day life throws at us. “More intelligent individuals, who possess higher levels of general intelligence and thus greater ability to solve evolutionarily novel problems, may face less difficulty in comprehending and dealing with evolutionarily novel entities and situations,” they write.

If you’re smarter and more able to adapt to things, you may have an easier time reconciling your evolutionary predispositions with the modern world. So living in a high-population area may have a smaller effect on your overall well-being — that’s what Kanazawa and Li found in their survey analysis. Similarly, smarter people may be better-equipped to jettison that whole hunter-gatherer social network — especially if they’re pursuing some loftier ambition.

RTFA. Interesting. I haven’t included all the details. And I haven’t found free access to the complete study.

Reflexive and positive response to the article in my household was as expected. My wife and I live as two hermits interacting with an enlarged world online. People in general, rarely. Everyone in our community knows us. We walk a lot. We wave at everyone as they drive by. They are our neighbors.

Monster stars with 100 x our sun’s mass

Click to enlarge

Astronomers using the unique ultraviolet capabilities of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have identified nine monster stars with masses over 100 times the mass of the Sun in the star cluster R136. This makes it the largest sample of very massive stars identified to date. The results, which will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, raise many new questions about the formation of massive stars.

Astronomical photography is such a delight. Thanks to WIRED for a weekly post.

AI with 31 years’ worth of knowledge ready to go to work

Having spent the past 31 years memorizing an astonishing collection of general knowledge, the artificial-intelligence engine created by Doug Lenat is finally ready to go to work.

Lenat’s creation is Cyc, a knowledge base of semantic information designed to give computers some understanding of how things work in the real world…

And now, after years of work, Lenat’s system is being commercialized by a company called Lucid.

“Part of the reason is the doneness of Cyc,” explains Lenat, who left his post as a professor at Stanford to start the project in late 1984. “Not that there’s nothing else to do,” he says. But he notes that most of what is left to be added is relevant to a specific area of expertise, such as finance or oncology…

Michael Stewart, a longtime collaborator of Lenat’s and the CEO of Lucid, says the new company is in talks with various others interested in using the Cyc knowledge base. Lucid has been working with the Cleveland Clinic, for example, to help automate the process of finding patients for clinical studies. This involved adding new information to the Cyc knowledge base and a new front-end interface that allows doctors to input natural-language queries such as “Find patients with bacteria after a pericardial window.” Lucid should not only find the right candidate patients but provide a clear chain of logical reasoning for why it selected them…

Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and the cofounder of an AI company called Geometric Intelligence, says Lucid is interesting because it aims to address some of the shortcomings of popular approaches. “Cyc has a reputation for being unwieldy, and for the last decade hardly anything has been said about it publicly,” Marcus says. “At the same time, it represents an approach that is very different from all the deep-learning stuff that has been in the news.”

Marcus agrees that recent advances, which have enabled computers to process images and audio with human-like skills, are somewhat limited. “Deep learning is mainly about perception,” he says, “but there is a lot of inference involved in everyday human reasoning, and Cyc represents a serious effort to grapple with the subtlety of that inference. I don’t know what will emerge, but I am eager to see.”

The most interesting direction I see in software like this would be in lifetime mentoring – starting with tutoring the very young. The idea being that the AI would learn how their pupil is growing and learning and adjust to provide course correction and a useful level of guidance to aid in choices – without interfering in self-realization, self-guidance.

I’ve studied proposals like that over the past decade. Haven’t yet seen or heard of any long-term success.

Congressman wants magic to be a “national treasure”

Rep. Pete Sessions, (R-Tex.), wants Congress to adopt a resolution recognizing magic “as a rare and valuable art form and national treasure.”

The conservative’s proposal drops names like Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, futurist Arthur C. Clarke, and even artist Leonardo da Vinci.

Getting Congress to agree on anything usually takes a little magic (maybe a magic bag of cash?). So why should lawmakers approve this non-binding resolution known as H.RES.642.? The resolution’s text says it all:

Whereas magic, like the great art forms of dance, literature, theater, film, and the visual arts, allows people to experience something that transcends the written word…

Most important, the resolution says thatmagic is timeless in appeal and requires only the capacity to dream.”

Sessions has pushed a similar resolution like this before, to no avail. The measure was referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The Society of American Magicians has recognized Sessions in the past, and the group has been lobbying Congress for decades to recognize magic as an art form.

Nice idea. Something I can endorse.

Mail me a penny postcard when a Congressional Republican nice guy displays the same feeling for science, medical research, education – and evolution.