It doesn’t take much to galvanize the internet. The release of a study on the so-called “Savanna Theory of Happiness” has proven that. The commentariat took results and ran with them, blasting out theories about why research shows that smart people, uniquely, derive less pleasure from social interactions. Though some writers tussled with the theory favored by the researchers — smart people paradoxically flock to high-density environment and avoid people because they are adaptable and divorced from a traditional hunter-gatherer social model — plenty of writers came up with their own ideas. Anecdotal evidence was spread like butter on hot toast.

The idea that our social dynamics are colored by our evolutionary history is appealing and, on some level, logical. But much of this is wildly speculative. Yes, we evolved to thrive in the social milieu of an African savanna, but we can only make inferences about the psychology of our ancestors. If you really want to know why smart people don’t want to talk to you, you’re going to have to try to learn about brains.

The study in question analyzed the survey responses of 15,000 Americans aged 18 to 28. The survey used self reporting to quantify happiness (“How satisfied are you with life as a whole?”)*, and the study also used a verbal IQ test as a proxy for “intelligence.” Answers indicated that people living in a high-population density environments dissimilar to the savanna were less happy and people who interacted more with friends were happier. (The study looked at global effects, not personality types.) The outliers lay out.

The effect of population density was much smaller on “smart” people (defined as greater than one standard deviation above the mean on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary test). And, interestingly, smart people were less happy when they socialize with friends and family more frequently.

Here we come to a problem. The Savanna Theory of Happiness explains the bizarre reversal seen in smart people, but assumes a lot about our ancestors. It’s important to keep in mind that modernity isn’t necessarily a new selective pressure: We’ve invented new ways to do things we already want to do, not ways of forcing new selective pressures (in most cases). Technology and cities probably haven’t changed our biology appreciably. Socializing should either trigger a serotonin release or not. It’s a big uphill battle to argue that smarter people can simply override this.

Another explanation offered by Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution proposes that it has more to do with drive of smart people.

Think of the really smart people you know. They may include a doctor trying to cure cancer or a writer working on the great American novel or a human rights lawyer working to protect the most vulnerable people in society. To the extent that frequent social interaction detracts from the pursuit of these goals, it may negatively affect their overall satisfaction with life.

Well, sure, some people are more focused on their big endeavors than other folks, but this argument conflates motivation and dedication with intelligence. While motivation and intelligence may trend together frequently, they are different qualities. It’s very possible to be smart and lazy.

It seems more likely that the quality of the social interactions are more important. You can imagine that someone who is two or three standard deviations above the mean in a population just doesn’t get that much satisfaction out of the average conversation. (For reference, two standard deviations below the mean is considered “Intellectual Disability.”) So you can imagine — and maybe you don’t have to — that walking around in a world full of individuals with ID would be frustrating to someone of average intelligence. That’s what life might be like for smart people.

This is, of course, a really big exaggeration, but it illustrates the point that social interactions aren’t necessarily of equal value to the people participating in them.

A page from Einstein's "General Theory of Relativity."

It’s tempting to counter this argument by saying that smarter people will end up in a career populated by other smart people, but there’s reason to believe this is not actually the case. Careers that attract smart people often also attract high achievers. It’s important to remember that those are two overlapping populations. Many high achievers are unusually competent and usually intelligent.

Part of the challenge with this is that the biology of “smart” can be very, very different (as previously discussed). It’s generally accepted that the deep, “white matter” in the brain is very important for social intelligence. The outer “gray matter” is where the bodies of the neurons live, and where processing happens. Different regions of gray matter handle different tasks. So, when the part of the brain that handles the abstract relationship of numbers is being developed in utero, a slight increase in the proliferation rate of neurons might give the baby a more powerful math comprehension later in life (when this gets extreme, the proliferation of neurons can get so big that it actually blocks the connection between different parts of the brain, which can manifest as autism or Asperger’s Syndrome).

Depending on where in the gray matter the extra neural tissue exists, it may be that even smart people have little in common because of the unique biology of their brains. They therefore may not derive satisfaction even in socializing with each other. This would be especially true if the gray matter boost came at the expense of white matter, making them less interested in socializing generally.

In any case, we (humans) aren’t really under any strong selection pressure right now, so I imagine we’ll start to see more atypical biology and behaviors. Without a selection pressure, the distribution of our neural biology may spread out even further. Hopefully we’ll be able to hold together a cohesive (and happy!) society as this happens.


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