Many individuals with psychological problems such as substance misuse, anxiety, attachment issues, and even posttraumatic stress, can trace the cause of their issues back to events or conditions in their childhoods. Suffering the death of a parent, being the victim of childhood sexual abuse, or experiencing severe neglect and maltreatment may be indications that could indeed explain later psychological maladjustment.
Some research has even suggested that socioeconomic disadvantage in childhood can be a pathway for adult psychological illness. And intelligence has also been considered to influence mental well-being. But until now, no study has examined the direct and indirect effects of childhood intelligence and economic status on adult psychological adjustment.
Sophie von Stumm of the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths University in London wanted to find out if children with high intelligence and higher family incomes actually had better psychological outcomes in adulthood when compared to less advantaged, less intelligent children. Stumm conducted an analysis of data collected from 12,500 birth records of people born between 1950 and 1956. The individuals completed census questionnaires when they were in their late 40s.
Stumm evaluated the data and found that contrary to some existing research, childhood intelligence and economic status did not directly impact adult psychological well-being. However, socioeconomic status in early adulthood did affect later well-being for the adults Stumm evaluated.
This finding shows that even though some children may be more intellectually and economically advantaged than others, those advantages only indirectly affect later psychological adjustment. For instance, smarter, wealthier children may have more opportunities to pursue higher education and attain high-paying jobs, thus putting them in better socioeconomic positions in early adulthood. It is during this young adult phase that economic status seems to affect middle-aged psychological adjustment the most.
Stumm said, “Childhood intelligence and SES and education influence psychological distress at midlife indirectly through their association with adult SES.” However, the research clearly shows that not all children from disadvantaged environments will experience psychological maladjustment in mid-life, and in the same way, not all advantaged children can expect to have positive psychological outcomes.
Von Stumm, S., Deary, I.J., Hagger-Johnson, G. (2013). Life-course pathways to psychological distress: A Cohort Study. BMJ Open 2013;3:e002772. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002772
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