If you worry a lot, fear not—your anxiety just might be a sign of high intelligence. The idea has been around for a while: The adage that ignorance is bliss suggests the reverse, that knowledge involves anguish. Now it’s starting to get some scientific validation.
In a recent study, for instance, psychologist Alexander Penney and his colleagues surveyed more than 100 students at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, and asked them to report their levels of worry.
The researchers found that students with more angst—for instance, those who agreed with survey statements like “I am always worrying about something”—scored higher on a verbal intelligence test.
The perception that worrywarts are smart is bolstered by a peculiar 2012 experiment by psychologists Tsachi Ein-Dor and Orgad Tal, from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. The experiment inflicted seemingly incidental bursts of stress on 80 students.
The students in the study were told their role was to assess artwork presented by a software program—but this was just a cover story. While doing so, participants “accidentally” activated a supposedly virulent computer virus. (This, of course, happened automatically, regardless of the participants’ behavior.) Next, they were urged by the trained actress running the show to seek technical support urgently.
As they tried to do so, the poor saps were presented with four more challenges. In the hallway, for instance, someone begged them to do a survey, and another student dropped a stack of papers at their feet. The higher participants scored on a measure of anxiety, the more inclined they were to focus single-mindedly on fixing the original computer virus glitch. “We found that anxious individuals were less willing to be delayed on their way to deliver a warning message,” Ein-Dor and Tal said in the study. Nervous Nellies proved more alert and effective.
In earlier research, Ein-Dor and Tal showed that worriers sense threats faster than their calm counterparts—including the smell of smoke. From the two researchers’ perspective, if you habitually fret, you are, reassuringly, a “sentinel” instead of a neurotic bundle of nerves.
Another study, run by psychiatrist Jeremy Coplan from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York, involved people who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder. He and his colleagues found that people with more severe symptoms had a higher IQ than those with milder symptoms.
The idea that worriers are cannier than average may just seem to make sense—a worried mind is a searching mind, and smarter people may have the cognitive agility to examine multiple angles of any situation, for better or worse. And as Penney and his colleagues wrote in their study, “It is possible that more verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry.”
The relationship—if it is real—could work in both directions. Children who are predisposed to be anxious may be more attentive or diligent in school, for instance, and therefore improve their intelligence. And smart people may find more things to worry about.
Someone afflicted by fear of flying will conjure up all kinds of wildly creative scenarios in their head, according to Manhattan psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, who paints anxiety as a form of vigilance. The sufferer may worry that the mechanic was tired and failed to check the plane properly, he told me. Or the worrier may fret about a bird flying into the motor. And so on.
If imaginative agitation is based on a realistic take on future events, according to Los Angeles–based therapist Allen Wagner, it can lead to the safety solutions that prevent disasters, which sounds smart.
This interpretation of anxiety, though, contradicts other studies showing a negative link between intelligence and anxiety. In Coplan’s study showing higher IQ in people with more severe symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, for instance, higher IQ correlated with lower worry in the control group.
According to Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, the smarter you are, the more chilled you are. “There are exceptions, obviously, but the basic finding is sound. One explanation for the negative correlation is pretty straightforward: When people are anxious, they don't think very clearly,” Epstein told me.
Still, the suspicion persists that a tendency to be twitchy just might bequeath a mental advantage. Many brilliant thinkers suffered from anxiety, including Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, and Kurt Gödel.
Despite his magisterial image, Abraham Lincoln was high-strung; he described himself as “naturally of a nervous temperament.”
A poem ascribed to the formidable orator features this desperately fraught stanza:
To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I'll headlong leap from hell's high brink
And wallow in its waves.
Edvard Munch’s masterpiece The Scream came to him during a panic attack that played out as a vision of a blood-red sky. “I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature,” Munch is quoted saying.
Whatever your level of creativity, if you are dogged by dread, the trait may mean you are more likely to avoid danger. Better anxious and animate than brash and dead.
So the next time someone tells you to relax, explain that nervousness has its virtues. A jittery streak could even be spun as a strategic workplace advantage—a subtle sign of excellence and an up-scale IQ. Nobody is making a case for raging paranoia, but at a pinch, above-average unease just might be something to brag about. Whatever else, it means reduced risk of falling prey to overconfidence.