Smart kids are less likely to smoke cigarettes, but more likely to drink and smoke weed through their teenage years, claims a new study from the British Medical Journal.
That conclusion was reached based on seven years worth of data from more than six thousand participants in the UK, who answered questionnaires about themselves between the ages of roughly 13 to 20.
Students with high academic ability showed a significantly lower predilection for cigarette smoking as they grew into adolescence compared to those with poorer performance in school. Cannabis and alcohol use, on the other hand, were more prevalent among the high ability group—a trend sometimes attributed to "experimentation."
Experimentation in drugs and alcohol is defined scientifically as a "temporary regular pattern of use" that stops after a period of time. "Previous studies had suggested that high academic ability pupils would be more likely to experiment with substances in early adolescence before giving up later on in their teens and early twenties," says James Williams, the paper's lead author and professor at the University College of London Medical.
However, the new research defies that conclusion. "These patterns continued into early adulthood," Williams says. That is to say, it's not necessarily just a phase.
Why smart kids turn to marijuana and alcohol isn't totally clear. The paper, however, offers two theories: The first is that higher cognitive ability is associated with "openness to experience,"—i.e., a willingness to try new things. The second is that the high ability group was simply more honest in their self-reporting about drug use, but this hypothesis is only speculative.
The takeaway seems to be that just because children are doing well academically doesn't mean they will abstain from substance abuse. In fact, it might be the smart kids who run the longer-term risk of carrying that use with them well into adulthood.