Is there a link between intelligence and worrying?

A Slate post I read this week – Scary smart: do intelligent people worry more? – left me feeling uneasy. It’s not because I like to think of myself as smart, and therefore discovered that I might worry more than the average person (figured that one out in second grade, I think). The uneasiness resulted from feeling like the author’s overall story was really not the one that the data he reported show.

The post started by discussing a study by a group at Lakehead University in Ontario which had students complete a survey with items like “I am always worrying about something” and complete a verbal intelligence test. They found that those two scores were positively correlated: people who reported worrying more also had higher scores on the verbal test.

Next the author reports an amusing study conducted by researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Tel Aviv, in which participants thought their task was to assess artwork on a computer. While doing this, the computer informed them that they had just activated a virus, and the research assistant running the experiment frantically asked them to go get help. As they were going to get help, more stress was thrown at them – someone in the hall asked them to answer a survey, another person dropped a stack of papers at their feet… The researchers found that the people who scored highest on an anxiety measure were the least distracted from their mission to find computer help by the additional stressors they encountered on the way. The Slate article reports, “Nervous Nellies proved more alert and effective.” I’m not sure I would come to the same conclusion, since in some cases, being fixed on one goal when other important things arise might not actually be a good trait. Regardless, it’s hardly a sign of intelligence, so I’m still not sure why that research was included in this piece. These same researchers have also shown that people who are higher in anxiety sense threats like smoke more quickly than others. Again, this might not always be a good thing (is it really beneficial to smell your neighbor’s BBQ and get distracted from the task at hand?), and even in cases where hyper vigilance is helpful, it’s not how most of us define intelligence.

Image from original slate article
Image from original slate article

There are a few other examples that seem consistent with the idea that higher intelligence (defined in a variety of ways) is associated with more worrying (also defined in a variety of ways). But then there’s some evidence that shows that the positive relationship between intelligence and worrying might not be so clear-cut. For example, although higher IQ and anxiety seem to be positively correlated among people who have diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, the reverse was true in a control group: less worrying was associated with people with higher IQs.

But not much attention is paid to the contradictory evidence. The author writes “Still, the suspicion persists that a tendency to be twitchy just might bequeath a mental advantage.” He lists famous people who have been considered intelligent and have had anxiety – Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Kurt Gödel, and Abraham Lincoln. While this is interesting, it’s not evidence – he conveniently forgot to list the many geniuses who didn’t have excessive anxiety and the many anxious people who don’t have exceptional intelligence.

Kudos to the article for presenting two sides, one step in the direction of showing that the question is not cut-and-dry (so few are, especially in psychology). But what should a reader think after this? That psychologists are wasting time and money running experiments that contradict each other and that we might never know which ones to believe? (If I wasn’t a grad student in a related field, that’s what I’d take away). Instead, readers should understand that “worrying” is complicated. Maybe, just maybe… “worrying” is not all one thing. We might use the same word to describe it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s really just one concept. There’s rumination about things you’ve done, worry about far-off future events, fear of public speaking, being mugged, or spiders, jitteriness, pessimism, and many other flavors of worrying. While a person who engages in one type might often engage in others, that’s not necessarily the case. And since there’s no absolute way to measure “worry,” researchers have to operationalize – they have to create a working definition for worrying, something measurable that they take to reflect worrying. We shouldn’t expect that a finding based, for example, on a generalized anxiety questionnaire, will apply to all types of people. Further, these studies involve testing people in different contexts, places (many cultural characteristics can affect performance on the measures researchers use to reflect worry) and by different researchers (even subtle differences in mannerisms, experiment design, or environmental controls could affect the results.

We need to be careful how much we generalize. Instead of concluding from the study that correlated people’s verbal test scores with their anxiety inventory scores that intelligent people worry more, it might be more accurate to say something like, college students in Ontario who have high verbal scores (according to one particular test) also have high anxiety scores (according to another particular test).

Granted, if all these caveats were heaped on readers, they’d probably be really disillusioned with research, and maybe stop reading catchy articles in the public press like this one, and that’s not the goal either. It’s just important to point out that not all DVs are created equal, and that single experiments, especially on such abstract traits as “worrying” shouldn’t be recklessly generalized.

Overgeneralization is a problem in psychology, probably because the flashy conclusions are much more interesting to non-psychologists, and popular press writers’ goal is to engage their audience. I think our goal should be engaging people in a way that doesn’t overgeneralize, though. Is society really becoming more scientifically literate if they’re reading articles about science but misunderstanding the implications of that science? I have higher hopes for improving scientific literacy. I think we can engage people, tell them about exciting and controversial findings, and help them to think critically in order to generalize when it’s appropriate, and take things with a grain of salt when that’s appropriate. We can have our scientific cake and eat it too, as long as we remember that that’s the goal of science communication.