There is an archetype or trope in fiction and mass media called Intelligence Equals Isolation - when a person or character is "very smart," but often suffers for it by being unable to relate to the worries and personalities of their friends, relatives or anybody.
Now, a new real-world study may be able to back up this fictional archetype. Evolutionary psychologists from Singapore and London have found that intelligent people find it difficult to engage in social interaction even with their close friends.
Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Norman Li of Singapore Management University originally dug into the question: what makes a life well-lived?
Kanazawa and Li hypothesize that the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors forms the foundation of what makes modern humans happy now.
They applied a concept called "the savanna theory of happiness" to explain their findings from a large survey that involved 15,000 people, who were 18 to 28 years old.
The pair found that people who reside in areas that are densely populated were more likely to report less satisfaction with their life. The greater the population density, the less happy the respondents said they were.
Researchers also found that the more interaction the respondents had with their close friends, the greater their self-reported happiness was.
There was, however, a huge exception: for intelligent people, the correlations were reversed or diminished.
More Alone Time, Please
The team measured intelligence through people's intelligent quotient. Although the exact IQ levels of the respondents were not disclosed, the baseline is considered 100, while genius level is at 140.
Kanazawa and Li found that the effect of population density on life satisfaction was more than twice as large for individuals with low IQ than for individuals with high IQ.
In fact, more intelligent individuals were less satisfied with their life if they socialized with their friends more frequently.
In other words: intelligent people tended to need more alone time. If they spend too much time with friends, they would feel less satisfied with life.
Carol Graham of Brookings Institution, an expert who studies the economics of happiness, has an explanation why.
"The findings in here suggest - and it is no surprise - that those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it ... are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective," Graham says.
It could be that the person prefers to spend more time treating cancer as a doctor, writing his next book as a novelist, or working to protect vulnerable people in society as a human rights lawyer. Frequent social interaction may seem to detract them to pursue these goals, negatively affecting their life satisfaction.
The Link To Our Prehistoric Ancestors
However, Kanazawa and Li's savanna theory of happiness explains it differently.
It begins with the premise that the human brain evolved to meet the demands of the ancestral environment on the African Savanna, where the population density was similar to rural Alaska, with less than one person per square kilometer. A brain like that in an environment like modern Manhattan would result to evolutionary friction.
Still, our prehistoric ancestors who were hunter-gatherers lived in small bands of 150 individuals.
"In such settings, having frequent contact with lifelong friends and allies was likely necessary for survival and reproduction for both sexes," researchers said.
Kanazawa and Li found a twist: intelligent people may be better equipped to deal with evolutionary changes, so living in an area with high population may have a smaller effect on their overall disposition and well-being.
Meanwhile, the study has a caveat: it defines happiness in terms of self-reported satisfaction and does not consider experienced well-being, such as the last time the person laughed or how many times the person has been angry in the past week.
Still, Kanazawa and Li said the distinction does not matter 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," researchers said.
The study is featured in the British Journal Of Psychology.
Photo: Amy West | Flickr