It appears that super smart people tend to be bigger consumers of alcohol than average and dull people, and Andrew Sullivan has an armchair theory for why this is the case:
It’s what Oakeshott called “the ordeal of consciousness.” When you have [a] constantly charging brain, you need to shut it off sometimes in order to breathe and live. It’s no wonder so many brainiacs self-medicate in this way. The key thing, as always, is moderation.
Let’s call the above theory “The Andrew Sullivan hypothesis.” It’s interesting, don’t you think?
But it may also be a correlation/causation fallacy: an active brain might not lead you to consume more alcohol. It might just be coincidentally correlated with such behavior. It may also be the case that Andrew Sullivan’s theory, even if true, accounts for only a small proportion of the difference between heavy and less heavy drinkers.
But if we stipulate that the phenomenon is real—that super smart people really do drink more alcohol than the rest of us—then what other hypotheses might account for this fact?
Here are a few:
- The Ayn Rand hypothesis. Super smart people—especially super smart Tea Partiers—feeling their income potential thwarted by high taxes, drink more (while watching Fox News, which makes them drink even more). In other words, the bleak collectivist atmosphere makes the Atlases drug.
- The Francis Crick hypothesis. The same genes that turn on our impulses for certain forms of sugar—such as alcohol—may also just happen to be associated with higher intelligence.
- The “Biology is not Destiny” hypothesis. Super smart people, which in our meritocracy also tend to be wealthier people, move in circles where alcohol happens to be the socially acceptable drug of choice. Environment may be shaping behavior.
- The Gloria Steinem hypothesis. One curious artifact of the research on drinking patterns and intelligence is that high IQ women are particularly prone to heavy drinking, and so it might be that high IQ women, moving into traditionally male dominated professions, self medicate as a way of coping with the previously uncharted demands underlying the juggling of family with the contemporary workplace. Maybe men at work are putting smart women in double binds, treating them like their mothers (leaving it to them to clean up corporate messes, doing all the real work, etc). You know. Exactly like men act at home. The result: women drink to escape all the sexism.
- The Sartrean atheist hypothesis. Smart people, not being easily taken in by conventional religious claims, live with less hope, and so drink to drown out their sense of emptiness and existential oblivion. If you don’t have the opiate of the people (religion), you need real opiates.
- The Cops hypothesis. Super smart people, generally more alert to risk than other people, stick to legal forms of self medication. They don’t want to end up on the television show Cops, their careers ruined. By contrast, the rest of us, acting on poorly thought out impulses and not weighing consequences quite so thoroughly, don’t self-medicate less, but in different (and stupider) ways.
- The Karl Marx hypothesis. Follow the money. Super smart people, tending to have higher paying jobs, drink more because they can afford to drink more. They have more leisure time for drinking and they can cover the consequences of their drinking by throwing their money at it. For example, whenever a smart and rich couple wants to have a night out on the town drinking and dancing without their children, they can simply bring in a babysitter for the evening—or even hire a live-in nanny. An around-the-clock nanny also covers for morning-after hangovers and makes sure that the kids have breakfast.
I’m not saying that any of these alternative hypotheses are better than Andrew Sullivan’s, but they are, in their turns, plausible, and may account for some of the differences in alcohol consumption patterns. So how would we go about actually nailing down the exact truth of the matter, were we so disposed?
Time for a glass of wine.