Why People with Higher IQs Don’t Require Large Social Circles — Research
While the average person is happier with a large circle of friends, a research study reveals those with higher IQs are better off with a smaller circle.
Evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Norman Li of Singapore Management University are the authors of this intriguing study published in the British Journal of Psychology, which investigated how friendship affects life satisfaction and overall happiness.
In data from a long-term survey of 15,000 adults aged 18 to 28, Kanazawa and Li noticed two major trends. First of all, urban dwellers were generally less happy than those living in rural areas. Secondly, people reported higher life-satisfaction with less social interactions.
Using the “the savanna theory of happiness” to back up their research, the researchers hypothesized their findings are rooted in early man and the hunter-gather lifestyle that had people living in tribes, much more akin to small towns that big cities. “Situations and circumstances that would have increased our ancestors’ life satisfaction in the ancestral environment may still increase our life satisfaction today,” they wrote.
The savannah (or savanna) hypothesis is a hypothesis that human bipedalism evolved as a direct result of human ancestors’ transition from an arboreal lifestyle to one on the savannas. According to the hypothesis, millions of years ago hominins left the woodlands that had previously been their natural habitat, and adapted to their new habitat by walking upright. The adapted Savanna Principle is: The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. Other evolutionary psychologists call the same observation the evolutionary legacy hypothesis or the mismatch hypothesis.
There was also one major finding in the study by Kanazawa and Li that threw the researchers for a loop: Highly intelligent people became less satisfied the more time they spend with friends.
“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 wrote. And “more intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently.”
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.
A large body of previous research has outlined what some have called an “urban-rural happiness gradient.” Kanazawa and Li explain: “Residents of rural areas and small towns are happier than those in suburbs, who in turn are happier than those in small central cities, who in turn are happier than those in large central cities.”
But Kanazawa’s 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. “In such settings, having frequent contact with lifelong friends and allies was likely necessary for survival and reproduction for both sexes.”
The authors argue that the typical human life has changed rapidly since then “— back on the savanna we didn’t have cars or iPhones or processed food or ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ — 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.”
It’s important to remember that this is an argument Kanazawa and Li are proposing and is not settled science. “Paleo-” theories — the idea that our bodies are best adapted to the environment of our earliest ancestors — have come under fire in recent years, especially as food companies and some researchers over-hyped the alleged benefits of the paleo-diet fad.
But Brookings’s Carol Graham says one potential flaw in their research is that it defines happiness in terms of self-reported life satisfaction (“How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”), and doesn’t consider experienced well-being (“How many times did you laugh yesterday? How many times were you angry?” etc.). Survey researchers know that these two types of questions can lead to very different assessments of well-being.
For their part, Kanazawa and Li maintain that that distinction doesn’t matter too much for their savanna theory. “Even though our empirical analyses … used a measure of global life satisfaction, the savanna theory of happiness is not committed to any particular definition and is compatible with any reasonable conception of happiness, subjective well-being, and life satisfaction,” they write.
Whether their theory is supported by subsequent research remains to be seen. It certainly does raise some interesting questions about the impact of socialization on both intelligence and life satisfaction.