We usually see worry as a bad thing. It feels unpleasant, like a snake coiling in the pit of your stomach. And worriers are often considered weak links in a team – negative influences who lack confidence. But of course, anxiety has a useful function. It’s about anticipating and preparing for threats, and learning from past mistakes.
Increasingly psychologists are recognising the strengths of anxious people. For example, there’s research showing that people more prone to anxiety are quicker to detect threats and better at lie detection. Now Alexander Penney and his colleagues have conducted a survey of over 100 students and they report that a tendency to worry goes hand in hand with higher intelligence.
The researchers asked the students to complete measures of worry, anxiety, depression, rumination, social phobia, dwelling on past social events, mood, verbal intelligence, non-verbal intelligence, and test anxiety. This last measure was important because the researchers wanted to distinguish trait anxiety from in-the-moment state anxiety and how each relates to intelligence.
The key finding was that after controlling for the influence of test anxiety and current mood, the students who reported a general habit of worrying more (e.g. they agreed with survey statements like “I am always worrying about something”) and/or ruminating more (e.g. they said they tended to think about their sadness, or think “what am doing to deserve this?”) also tended to score higher on the test of verbal intelligence, which was taken from the well-known Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.
To take one specific statistical example, verbal intelligence correlated positively with worry proneness with a statistically significant value of 0.19 (after controlling for test anxiety and mood). Together with the measures of rumination, mood and test anxiety, verbal intelligence explained an estimated 46 per cent of the variance in worry.
Another result from the survey, not so promising for worriers, was that a tendency to dwell on past social events was negatively correlated with non-verbal intelligence (that is, those students who dwelt more on past events scored lower on non-verbal IQ).
Seeking to explain these two different and seemingly contradictory correlations, the researchers surmised that: “more verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry. Individuals with high non-verbal intelligence may be stronger at processing the non-verbal signals they interact with in the moment, leading to a decreased need to re-process past social encounters.”
Of course we must be careful not to over-interpret these preliminary results – it was a small, non-clinical sample after all, so it’s not clear how the findings would generalise to people with more extreme anxiety. However it’s notable that a small 2012 study found a correlation between worry and intelligence in a sample diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. Penney and his colleagues concluded that: “a worrying and ruminating mind is a more verbally intelligent mind; a socially ruminative mind, however, might be less able to process non-verbal information.”
Penney, A., Miedema, V., & Mazmanian, D. (2015). Intelligence and emotional disorders: Is the worrying and ruminating mind a more intelligent mind? Personality and Individual Differences, 74, 90-93 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.10.005