Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’

Intelligence and mental health

Saturday, August 17th, 2019 | Science

Many people believe that there is an association between intelligence and mental illness. And there is. But it probably is not the one you think.

The media has often reported on the idea that mental illness is higher among intelligent people. In a way, there is some truth to this. Mental illness does seem to be prevalent among geniuses, for example. One study demonstrated that there were higher rates of mental health issues among Mensa members.

But this is one study and specifically looks at people who are abnormally high on the intelligence scale. It ignores the wider pattern of evidence that says increased intelligence correlates with better mental health. Wikipedia offers a good roundup of the evidence, but I also provide one below.

A 2016 study in the journal Intelligence found that intelligent youths were more likely to receive a dianogsis of depression at age 50, but less likely to have mental health issues on self-report measures.

A 2006 study found that intelligent people were less likely to have PTSD.

A 2008 study found that intelligent people were less likely to have schizophrenia.

A 2018 study found that intelligent people were less likely to have OCD.

And, perhaps most notably, a Swedish study that used over a million participants concluded that:

Lower intelligence is a risk factor for the whole range of mental disorders and for illness severity.

Of course, the biggest predictor of intelligent is individual difference. Struggling with mental illness says nothing about your intelligence. But the idea that having a mental illness is a sign that we are more intelligent is a myth.

Sorry. I was gutted as well.

50 Psychology Ideas You Really Need to Know

Saturday, November 7th, 2015 | Books

Part of the “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know” series apparently, this book by Adrian Furnham breaks down into 50 4-page sections giving a quick introduction to various concepts in psychology.

It is not available on eBook format, so I had to get the print.

It was pretty rubbish. I was sold on the title really need, but that is not the case. It contained a lot of stuff on abnormal psychology and concepts that were irrelevant to me. I do not need to know that stuff; I need to know about psychological biases that affect my everyday life – the kind of stuff Kahneman writes about. So when I took a quick look at it and saw “Gambler’s Fallacy” I thought it would be a good revision book. It was not.

The stuff that was in there was interesting, but I knew most of it.

There was some useful knowledge, or at least reminders in there though. Happiness tends to return to the base level regardless of what happens. Good to know if you are worried something awful will happen and leave you less happy than you are now.

In general, the summations of a topic were excellent. IQ for example strongly matches up with what Ritchie says in his recent book Intelligence: All That Matters. There is also an interesting discussion regarding the Flynn effect – do we get worse at problem-solving as we age, or are we simply comparing people to younger generations, who are constantly gaining IQ?

It also rubbishes multiple intelligences (which do not exist), though the “condensed idea” which is a one-line summary for each section says there may be multiple intelligences. I assume this was summing up the idea that it then rubbished, but it was rather confusing.

Furnham does not shy away from controversy either. One section discusses the differences in standard deviation and average IQ of both gender and racial groups. It’s all evidence-based of course, but can often be a taboo subject nonetheless.

Other points that perked my interest was that everybody dreams. Even if you don’t think you do, it means you just don’t remember them – they almost certainly do happen. Also, group brainstorming can be less productive than working individually because people are embarrassed to put their ideas forward or like to free-ride along.

Ultimately, I do not think I would recommend this book, because the material in it is just not useful enough.


Intelligence: All That Matters

Thursday, September 24th, 2015 | Books

In Intelligence: All That Matters, Stuart Richie presents a a succinct overview of intelligence research and where we are today.

I first met Stuart when we travelled up to Edinburgh for a national conference on how we could organise student humanist societies better. That is showing my age because he is now a fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Over the years he has spent much time trashing anti-intelligence articles and I have often thought “he should probably stop moaning and write a book about it”. Now he has, and although I’m bitter about not receiving a signed copy, it is a good read.

It comes across with a relaxed, somewhat “man down the pub” style. Though I should add that as most of my friends now have PhDs, the man down the pub is a very-well educated individual who just happens to be in a casual environment. Not someone who spouts nonsense without citing the relevant reference papers.

Richie challenges a lot of the new ideas that have come out in recent decades. Are there different kinds of intelligence for example? No, there is just one. There is no such thing as musical intelligence or football intelligence, there is just regular intelligence. There is some conciliation to emotional intelligence, but it should be noted that it does not correlate with success factors the way proper IQ does.

Intelligence also correlates with itself. If you do well in one area of an IQ test, you are likely to do well in the all. You can game it by practicing, to an extent, but who really has time to do that when you are mostly cheating yourself? Also, it will only affect certain areas of the test, which will be brought down by the rest.

IQ correlates with everything. Good health, good mental health, high earnings, education, liberalism and atheism all correlate. This surprised me as I had believed that high IQ correlated with poor mental health. Indeed, I have always comforted myself that I worry too much because I am clever, not because I am an idiot. Thanks for that. IQ correlates with leadership and creatively as well, though far more loosely than other traits.

There only seems to be one drawback of high IQ – it also correlates with short-sightedness. It is not understood why, though it may be because high IQ children read more. Just to be safe I am going to ban my kids from reading. If I have read Steven Pinker correctly, which I almost certainly have not, they will be fine anyway.

As we age our intelligence drops off a little. Bad news for me already being past my mid-twenties. This is seen in certain areas though. Crystallised intelligence (Wikipedia defines this as “the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience”) continues to rise while fluid intelligence (problem-solving) gradually drops off. Leading an active lifestyle can help maintain this.

50% of IQ can be accounted for genetically. It is polygenic, that is to say, no one gene accounts for it – there is no smart gene. The rest is environmental, though this is not really understood as, to reference Pinker again, parenting does not account for it. We are also seeing intelligence increasing at approximately three points per decade. This is known as the Flynn effect, but it is not obvious because IQ tests are regularly normalised.

This fits in neatly with what Michael Shermer writes in The Moral Arc about the expanding moral sphere being due to our increased intelligence, education and understanding of the world. Indeed Shermer also discusses the Flynn effect.

Unfortunately, there is no much you can do to increase your IQ. Any product telling you that it can is unlikely to be making an evidence-based claim. The one proven factor that does work, however, is education. A study in Norway when they extended mandatory schooling by two years, IQ went up. As they introduced it region by region, it was as close to a control as you can get, so suggests there is a causative link there.

The final section of the book looks at some of the implications and political debates surrounding intelligence research. Overall there are no differences in IQ between genders. Neither is smarter than the other. However, a 2014 paper by Miller and Halpern, looking at data from the Scottish government, suggests that males have a wider standard deviation (bell curve). This would explain why there are more men in higher academia and winning Nobel prizes, and also why there are more men of low intelligence (and as a consequence living on the streets, on Death Row, etc). Males are more likely to be at one extreme or the other.

In summary, IQ is important because there is only one kind of intelligence and IQ tests measure it pretty accurately. This correlates with health, wealth and happiness so is a worth topic for research.


As a bonus, Stuart appeared on my podcast in November 2008. It was a live conference podcast involving a dozen guests and intelligence is not discussed (or apparent) at any point during the show. However, for those who were at the conference, it is a reminiscent listen.


Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

Recently, Jack Straw was sued for being complicit in torture.

It’s a difficult issue – one one hand, torture is very bad. On the other hand, if you are able to extract information that could save lives, perhaps sometimes it could be justified? Or at least that is the argument that has been proposed by many people, including Sam Harris. At least that is the argument he made in 2005 when he published “In Defense of Torture” in the Huffington Post, though he qualifies this extensively on his website.

I personally think the argument is far more clear-cut, however.

Firstly, the evidence just isn’t there that torture works. I would like to say simply that “torture doesn’t work” but that is perhaps an unjustifiable claim. It’s very hard to do controlled trials of torture (thankfully) but there is evidence on both sides to suggest the efficacy of torture. Ultimately, it probably does yield information, that information is almost certainly unreliable, but if you are able to verify what is true and what isn’t, you can then argue there is some advantage to torture. Then again, you can argue there isn’t. We can’t conclusively say either way.

More importantly, however, even from a utilitarian perspective, which is similar to the position put forward by Harris in The Moral Landscape, torture is not justifiable.

The reason is, in order to allow torture in a utilitarian world, we all have to live in a world where people are tortured. So yes, the needs of the many may outweigh the needs of the one, and extracting information by force to save more lives could seem like a good idea at first. But what you’re actually doing is making everyone suffer because then everyone has to live in a world where we torture people.

This isn’t a nice world to live in. I really, really don’t like the idea that the government could wrongly suspect me of something and try to torture information out of me. But even if I knew it was never going to happen to me, someone has to actually do the torture as well, and someone was to authorise the torture. That’s a horrible job in itself. I don’t want torture to be any part of my world, no matter what side I’m on.

From that perspective then, the lives we would save from torture (which as we’ve already discussed, there is no conclusive evidence we would save anyway) are outweighed by the needs of the over six billion people on this planet who should have the right to live in a torture-free world.

Intelligence of Genetics

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011 | Events, Science

Recently, I visited Headingley Cafe Scientifique for the first time for a talk entitled “Intelligence of Genetics.”

I had never attended the Headingley Cafe before but it seems very well attended. It was standing room only by the time the event kicked off and there were plenty of seating available – so they probably had 50+ people there.

The venue was the New Headingley Club which looked very fancy on the website but turned out to be significantly less fancy in the flesh. I got plenty of change from my round at the bar though, so will approve of that!

The event itself was somewhat disappointing. I came away from the talk not really feeling that I had learnt anything – other than that we have a one in three chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease and this massively varies depending on our genetics. There were lots of stats, but a lot of these weren’t really in much context – am I supposed to be impressed by that number? I don’t know what an average sample size for your area of science.

Still, it was good to finally make it down to the Headingley Cafe.

IQ and religious adherence

Sunday, September 18th, 2011 | Religion & Politics, Science

My friend Stuart Ritchie, who is currently working towards his PhD in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh, was recently involved in a writing a paper looking at the relationship between IQ and religious adherence.

While you will find a far more in depth write up on Stuart’s blog, the key points found that there is a correlation between higher IQ and lower scores in five of the six measured used to gauge people’s religious belief.

The only factor which did not see this pattern was people who just described themselves as “spiritual.”

Interestingly, another of my friends is currently researching this area, and the results so far suggest that there is a link between describing yourself as spiritual is correlated with bad parenting – but I can’t comment further on this until the research has been completed.