Results of a new longitudinal research study  done in the United Kingdom led to the conclusion that high childhood IQ increases the risk of illegal drug use in adolescence and adulthood. “It’s counterintuitive,” said lead author James White. “It’s not what we thought we would find.”

The Cardiff University team looked at data from 8,000 people born in April, 1970. This interesting group, called the British Cohort Study, took surveys approximately once every five years about a broad host of topics. The results, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that subjects that tested above average on IQ tests at age 5 were twice as likely to have done hard drugs within the past year, when asked at age 30.

The authors asked the subjects about their use of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy and polydrug use within the last twelve months as well as about questions about social class, education, and psychological distress.

It may scare parents to learn that the smarter kids, both boys and girls, were not just smoking pot but were also more open to experimenting with cocaine and ecstasy. To put the results of the study in perspective, it is certainly not all of the smart kids who are experimenting. At age 16, 7% of boys and 6.3% of girls had used cannabis. By age 30, 35.4% of men and 15.9% of women had used cannabis and 8.6% of men and 3.6% of women had used cocaine.

White doesn’t know exactly what caused the difference but he has some hypotheses. The author noted that other studies have suggested intellectually “gifted children” or those with an IQ higher than 130, report high levels of boredom and being stigmatised by peers, either of which could conceivably increase vulnerability to using drugs as a way to cope or to deal with emotional pain.

Another likely mechanism that White proposed is the bright kids’ openness to experience. This explanation is similar to those offered by evolutionary psychologists who have observed the same trend. Evolutionary psychology is the branch of study that looks at why people do what they do–not from the standpoint of individual motives or family dynamics–but from the standpoint of what might have benefited the survival of our species.

An interest in novelty, often associated with taking risks, certainly has some evolutionary advantages. Think of the examples we know from science where new cures have been discovered by doctors willing to experiment on themselves. Risk-taking, although scary to most if not all parents, isn’t always bad.

What is important to know, since we can’t keep our kids from either risk-taking or being intrigued by new things, is that kids with high IQ are not “too smart” to know better. If we want to lower the risk of any of our kids getting into trouble, we need to tend to the overall health and happiness of our families, schools, and communities. Knowing and working on the keys to a happy, loving family–good communication, positive expression of feelings, consistent rituals of connection, appropriate boundaries, and parental teamwork– have never been so important.

Smart kid photo available from Shutterstock.



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    Last reviewed: 31 Mar 2012

APA Reference
MacMannis, D. (2012). Being A Smart Kid Can Sometimes Spell Trouble. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2015, from


How's Your Family Really Doing?
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Machester MacMannis, MSW are the author of How's Your Family Really Doing?.

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