Friday, March 25, 2022

Why is cognitive ability associated with psychological distress and wellbeing? Exploring psychological, biological, and social mechanisms

Why is cognitive ability associated with psychological distress and wellbeing? Exploring psychological, biological, and social mechanisms. Markus Jokela. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 192, July 2022, 111592.


• Multiple mechanisms may explain why cognitive ability is related to better mental health.

• Socioeconomic status, engagement in pleasant daily activities, and adaptive coping styles were most important.

• Biomarkers and social relationships did not account for the associations of cognitive ability.

Abstract: This study examined whether associations between cognitive ability and mental health (depression, anxiety, and psychological wellbeing) could be accounted for by different categories of risk factors: socioeconomic status, engagement in pleasant activities, coping/appraisal, social relationships, biological risk factors (inflammation, cortisol, heart-rate variability), and reaction time. Participants were from the Midlife in the United States study (n = 1744; mean age = 54, range 25 to 84). Adjusting for social relationships, biological risk factors, or reaction time had almost no influence on the association between cognitive ability and mental health. Adjusting for engagement in pleasant activities attenuated the associations with depression and anxiety by one-fourth; adjusting for coping/appraisal by one-third; and adjusting for socioeconomic status by one-fifth. These attenuations were larger for the associations with positive affect and life satisfaction. These findings suggest that the association between cognitive ability and mental health may be partly explained by cognitive-behavioral mechanisms and the protective influence of socioeconomic status.

Keywords: IntelligenceDepressionAnxietyMechanismWellbeingMIDUS

4. Discussion

Cognitive ability Among the variables included in this analysis, cognitive-behavioral factors and socioeconomic status were the most plausible mechanisms explaining why cognitive ability is related to lower levels of depression and anxiety, and with higher positive affect and life satisfaction. Biological factors, social relationships, and reaction time did not help to explain the associations.

The magnitude of the associations with symptoms of depression and anxiety ranged between standardized β = −0.12 to β = −0.19. These are not large associations with the conventional metrics of psychology. However, these standardized coefficients of cognitive ability were larger than the standardized coefficients of education, household income, CRP, and IL-6, and they were about the same as for the number of friends (see Supplementary Table 4). These are well-established sociodemographic and biological risk factors for depression and anxiety, so cognitive ability can be considered at least on par with other common risk factors for poor mental health. Given that mental health is determined by multiple biological, psychological, and social factors, one would not expect any single variable to overshadow all the other risk factors.

Some limitations need to be noted. First, all the psychosocial factors were self-reported, so their correlations with mental health outcomes might have been inflated by common informant bias. Second, the study design was observational, so the results can only suggest domains of overlap with the risk factors but not demonstrate causal pathways. The study design was longitudinal in that the mental health outcomes were assessed ~2 years after cognitive assessment and the psychosocial risk factors, so reverse causation or concurrent assessment may not have been as problematic as they would have been in a cross-sectional study design; the analysis did not, however, include adjustments for baseline mental health. In addition, the time lag was different for the covariates assessed in the main survey (few months before assessment of cognitive ability) than for covariates assessed in the biomarker survey (about two years after assessment of cognitive ability), which might have influenced their relative contributions. Third, the different categories of risk factors (e.g., social relationships vs. biological risk factors) were assessed with different types and numbers of indicators, which needs to be kept in mind when interpreting their relative contributions. Fourth, the current study focused on specific covariate categories but did not include a measure of “general fitness factor” that has been suggested to represent an individual's genetic quality, which might help to explain the physical health associations of intelligence (Arden et al., 2009). Finally, this study considered only linear associations of cognitive ability; there have been suggestions that very high cognitive ability might also be related to poorer health, manic symptoms in particular (Gale et al., 2013), but the overall evidence for curvilinear associations is very limited (Brown et al., 2021).

Cognitive-behavioral approach is one of the most influential frameworks in understanding mental health problems (Beck & Haigh, 2014). It emphasizes the interplay between thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, and focuses on modifying people's thoughts and behavioral patterns. For example, the method of behavioral activation is based on finding ways to engage in activities that the person enjoys, thereby providing positive reinforcement (Mazzucchelli et al., 2010). This is directly related to the Pleasant Events Schedule used in the present study, which showed that individuals with higher cognitive ability engaged in more pleasant activities, including laughing, sleeping well, being with other people, having discussions, and working out. They also derived less pleasure from some activities, such as shopping, praying or meditating, and taking a relaxing bath. The associations with pleasant social activities are in contrast to some earlier findings suggesting that individuals with higher intelligence would not enjoy the company of others as much as those with lower intelligence (Li & Kanazawa, 2016). The current results suggest that higher cognitive ability is related to more active engagement with a broad range of pleasant activities, though not all activities (Fig. 1). Pleasant activities associated with cognitive ability could account for one-fifth of its associations with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Problem-focused coping tackles difficult circumstances by looking for ways to actively solve and modify those circumstances. Emotion-focused coping, by contrast, turns the person's attention to the emotional reactions triggered by the difficult circumstances, which is often not adaptive. Cognitive-behavioral perspective emphasizes the flexibility of appraisals, that is, the possibility of interpreting a given situation from multiple perspectives, which gives more flexibility for the individual to respond. Higher cognitive ability was related to more adaptive coping styles (i.e., higher problem-focused and lower emotion-focused style), which helped to account for one-third of its associations with symptoms of depression and anxiety. This could be due to the better problem-solving skills associated with cognitive ability. However, cognitive ability was not related to the other four self-reported scales that assessed how individuals adjust their behavior when encountering obstacles, and how well they are able to modify and control their thoughts and emotions.

Social relationships are important predictors of many mental health problems, with lack of friends and interpersonal conflicts being a major source of distress (Wang et al., 2018). Except for receiving more support from friends, cognitive ability was unrelated to received support and strain from others, and the number of friends. Social relationships were therefore not relevant for the association between cognitive ability and mental health. Of the biological factors included in this study, cognitive ability was related to lower inflammation, but the biological factors were also not important for the association between cognitive ability and mental health. Similarly, some theories of intelligence suggest that the lower-level information processing might be the crucial factor underlying cognitive abilities, and reaction time has been suggested as one mechanism that might explain why higher cognitive ability predicts longevity (Deary & Der, 2005). However, reaction time did not help to explain why cognitive ability was related to better mental health.

Socioeconomic status may promote better mental health by presenting more resources and helping to buffer against life stressors. As previously reported by other studies (Ali et al., 2013Cheng & Furnham, 2014), adjusting for socioeconomic status attenuated the association of cognitive ability with symptoms of depression and anxiety, but it accounted only for one-fifth of the association, which suggests that socioeconomic status may not be the main, or even major, factor in explaining the mental health associations of cognitive ability.

In addition to symptoms of depression and anxiety, cognitive ability was also related to higher psychological wellbeing, as measured by positive affect and life satisfaction. These associations were related mostly to the same covariates as depression and anxiety, but these covariates were more influential in explaining the associations with psychological wellbeing: coping styles, pleasant activities, and socioeconomic status each accounted for ~50% of the associations of cognitive ability. When adjusted for all the covariates together, cognitive ability was no longer independently associated with positive affect or life satisfaction. This implies that the covariates identified in this study were more important mechanisms for psychological wellbeing than for depression and anxiety.

Country-specific estimates of unintended pregnancy and abortion incidence: a global comparative analysis of levels in 2015–2019

Country-specific estimates of unintended pregnancy and abortion incidence: a global comparative analysis of levels in 2015–2019. Marc Bearak et al. BMJ Global Health, Vol 7, Iss 3. Mar 2022.


Introduction: Internationally comparable estimates of unintended pregnancy and abortion incidence can illuminate disparities in sexual and reproductive health and autonomy. Country-specific estimates are essential to enable international comparison, and to inform country-level policy and programming.

Methods We developed a Bayesian model which jointly estimated unintended pregnancy and abortion rates using information on contraceptive needs and use, contraceptive method mix, birth rates, the proportions of births from unintended pregnancies and abortion incidence data. Main outcomes were the estimated rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion for 150 countries and territories, reported for the 5-year period 2015–2019, as annual averages per 1000 women aged 15–49 years.

Results Estimated unintended pregnancy rates ranged from 11 (80% uncertainty interval: 9 to 13) in Montenegro to 145 (131 to 159) in Uganda per 1000 women aged 15–49 years. Between-country heterogeneity was substantial in all Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) regions, but was greatest in sub-Saharan Africa. Estimated abortion rates ranged from 5 (5 to 6) in Singapore to 80 (55 to 113) in Georgia. Variation between country estimates was similar in all SDG regions except for Europe and Northern America, where estimated abortion rates were generally lower.

Conclusion The estimates reflect variation in the degree to unintended pregnancy and abortion that are experienced in countries throughout the world. This evidence highlights the importance of investing in access to contraception and comprehensive abortion care, including in regions which may have lower rates of unintended pregnancy or abortion, respectively, as countries may differ substantially from regional averages.

Data availability statement: Data are available in a public, open access repository. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplemental information.

Women who divorce face greater burdens because of decreased income and almost sole caring for children; why, then, do these women initiate divorce more and fare better psychologically after a divorce than men?

Why women choose divorce: An evolutionary perspective. Gillian Parker et al. Current Opinion in Psychology, Volume 43, February 2022, Pages 300-306.

Abstract: In Western dual-educated, male-female marriages, women who divorce face greater burdens because of decreased income and primary or sole responsibility for caring for children than men who divorce. Why, then, do these women initiate divorce more and fare better psychologically after a divorce than men? Here, we articulate an evolutionary mismatch perspective, informed by key findings in relationship science. We argue that mismatches between women's evolved preferences and configurations of modern marriage often clash, producing dissatisfaction. Women's unprecedented career ascendance also affords women ever more freedom to leave. We discuss pressures from social expectations for men and women that contribute to or compound these vulnerabilities. We conclude with key questions for future research, which can contribute to strategies for mitigating relationship dissatisfaction and the profound loss and pain that results from divorce.

Keywords: DivorceEvolutionary mismatchesGender rolesUnpaid laborMate preferences


When people choose to get married, typically they do so with the intention of staying together forever — ‘till death do us part.’ Nevertheless, roughly half of marriages in the US end in divorce [1]. This is costly to all involved, particularly to women.

Post-divorce, within Western heterosexual couples, women experience a significant decrease in income compared to men [2,3], and their risk of falling below the poverty line skyrockets [4].1 In contrast, Western men's income decreases modestly [2,3] or increases [4]. Women often take sole or primary custody of children [5] and are less likely to remarry [6,7]. Therefore, divorce involves a compound burden for many women, juggling both paid labor and most of the unpaid childcare work with fewer resources than are typically available to divorced men. Despite these costs, women are more likely to initiate divorce [8,9] and report greater life satisfaction post-divorce [10,11] than men. This represents a paradox of contemporary, Western divorce. Given the greater costliness of marital dissolution for women, why are women more often its initiators and psychological beneficiaries?

Provisional answers exist in literature showing that physical abuse [12], financial problems [13,14], infertility [15], infidelity [15,16], and personality conflicts [17] contribute to divorce. Although it is important to understand relationship-level variables that can cause relationships to erode, which is typical in the literature, it can obscure the fact that divorce typically does not occur because a relationship falls apart; instead, it typically occurs because one partner decides to leave [18,9]. In addressing why women initiate divorce from men, we need to understand individual-level factors that differ between men and women.

Here, we use insights from evolutionary and relationship science to examine this paradox of woman-initiated divorce. We propose that women's unprecedented professional ascendance has created mismatches between women's evolved preferences and modern marriage. Although women's professional success has helped emancipate them politically and economically from men, it also makes women and men less interdependent, changing the benefits of marriage and the costs of dissolution. This perspective leads to new research questions. We posit that answering these questions will help to identify means of improving relationships by minimizing gaps created by mismatches.

Women in the workplace: a new feature of the modern world

Ancestrally, pregnancy and childcare are likely to have kept women close to home. This created a dependency for women on a partner's provisioning (e.g. food, shelter, other resources). All of our female ancestors were mothers, and motherhood was virtually guaranteed to sexually active women. Motherhood and dependence on men, for our female ancestors, were not choices that women had to make. Instead, they were simply a part of life.

Today, things are different. Women can control their fertility, plan families, and achieve professional goals. Women earn 57.3% of bachelor's degrees, 60.1% of master's degrees, and 53.5% of doctoral degrees [19] and makeup 51.5% of the paid workforce [20]. When women have the opportunity to support themselves and not depend on men, many take that path.

Women's participation in the paid workforce benefits individual and collective well-being. Women's earnings are linked with greater life satisfaction [21,22] and better health [23]. Having women as part of an economic talent pool also increases company earnings and shapes innovation [24]. However, women's workforce participation has also created a dramatic shift in their relationships with men. For millennia, women were dependent on men's provisioning for survival and reproduction, and now they are not.

Here, we seek to detail how mismatches and other rapid social changes can contribute to women's decisions to divorce. We are not arguing for a shift back to traditional gender roles — instead, we see opportunities to modify relationships in ways that can be helpful in reducing relationship conflict and promoting relationship harmony. We view this article as a starting point for understanding new sources of marital discord and considering possible solutions beneficial to women and men.