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.

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