Comment: More Good News for the Insecurely Attached—Increased Intelligence

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In earlier posts I talked about research that suggests that insecurely attached people are better at recognizing and reacting to danger. In these studies researchers gather a group of people in a room and then pump harmless smoke under the door. As it turns out, it is the insecurely attached people who first recognize the potential danger that the smoke represents, and who form and execute an escape plan (i.e., leave through a door at the rear of the room). Securely attached people are slow to recognize danger and tend to take a “wait and see” attitude toward the danger (i.e., wait to hear from the researchers).

I just read an article that mentions the above research—pumping harmless smoke under the door. The article is entitled Scary Smart—Do Intelligent People Worry More? by David Wilson. Wilson talks about research that suggests that there is a correlation between anxiety and intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Apparently anxious people have higher IQs. Wilson mentions that anxious people are also better at the “smoke test” mentioned above. So it would appear that being insecurely attached might actually give you a bump in IQ. Why might this be? Wilson explains thus quoting psychologist Alexander Penney who, along with his colleagues, conducted “anxiety and IQ” research at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada:

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.”

As you know from reading my posts, perspective taking and mental time travel (e.g., being able to plan for the future based on past events) are two skills associated with EF or executive functioning. So it would seem that anxiety is one way to access some of the various EF skills. And this makes sense when you stop to consider all of the research studies that show that some anxiety is a good thing when taking standardized tests. (Too much test anxiety tends to work against the test taker.)

Even though this is good news for worriers, it would seem that there is a price to pay for accessing EF skills via anxiety: rumination, worry and what us psychology types call perseveration—the repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus (thank you Wikipedia). EF skills also include being able to appropriately shift focus. In my opinion, this may well be the critical EF skill that worriers lack. Thus once the worry system (if you will) is activated for worriers, it stays activated. As a result, worriers have a tough time regulating anxiety levels and shifting their focus to other matters. Ironically appropriately shifting focus is a good way to regulate emotion. When a friend tries to get your mind off a troubling event or situation, that friend is acting as a surrogate prefrontal cortex (PFC) (which is where the EF skills principally reside in the brain) trying to help you shift your focus.

Even if we have robust EF skills, there are times when a troubling situation can override our ability to appropriately shift focus. It’s at times like these that a surrogate PFC (in the form of a close friend or intimate partner) comes in real handy. On the other hand, having a single-minded focus may be what is necessary to solve a problem. I’m thinking of the 2014 movie The Imitation Game which shows us how Alan Turing’s single-minded focus allowed him to build the first digital computer and crack the German’s Enigma Code (the code the Germans used to communicate with during WWII). So, the anxiety – IQ connection may well be a blessing and a curse. Similarly, being insecurely attached may also be a blessing and a curse. I guess it depends a lot on the context. If you have to escape a burning room or crack an impenetrable code, insecurity may be a blessing.

I’ll give Wilson the final word: “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.” Or as neurobiologist Joseph LeDoux puts it (as talked about in an earlier post): “The cost of treating a stick as a snake is less, in the long run, than the cost of treating a snake as a stick.”