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Intelligent Soldiers More Likely To Die During Wartime

December 19, 2008

New research from Britain finds that intelligence has its downside during battle. The study, which used British government records, found that Scottish soldiers who gave their lives during the Second World War were more intelligent than who survived the defeat of the Third Reich.

The 491 soldiers who were killed had an average IQ, measured by a test administered to all 11-year-old Scottish children born in 1921, of 100.8.  However, several thousand survivors who had taken the same test averaged 97.4.

University of Edinburgh psychologist Ian Dreary, who led the study, said the phenomenon might be attributable to the nature of the Second World War, in that it was fought more with brains than brawn compared with previous conflicts.  

The results seems to contradict dozens of other studies that show smart people typically outlive their less intelligent counterparts.

“We wonder whether more skilled men were required at the front line, as warfare became more technical,” Deary told New Scientist.

The study merges records from Scottish army units with results of national tests taken by all 11-year-olds in 1932.  The tests were intended to measure skills in mathematics and verbal reasoning along with spatial skills. Previous research indicates that childhood IQs accurately predict intelligence later in life.

“No other country has ever done such a whole-population test of the mental ability of its population,” said Deary.

A previous study had found a decline in average intelligence among Scottish men after the war.  Deary’s team theorized at the time that less intelligent men were simply more likely to be rejected for military service. However, the new study appears to disprove that theory, finding instead that men who didn’t serve were actually more intelligent than surviving veterans, and of equal intelligence to those who were killed.

The researchers gained additional insight by analyzing the data according to rank. They found that low-ranking soldiers comprised three-fifths of all deaths, and their IQs as assessed on their childhood tests averaged 95.3. Officers and non-commissioned officers comprised roughly 7% and 20% of war deaths, respectively.  Officers scored on average 121.9, raising the average IQ for those who had died, whereas non-commissioned officers had an average score of 106.7.

“We also wondered whether there was an overall small tendency for more intelligent soldiers to want to do the job well, perhaps meaning they ended up in more threatening situations,” Deary said.

Australian National University epidemiologist Phil Batterham questions why intelligence would make a soldier more likely to die during a war.

“One could hypothesize that the association between greater intelligence and higher war-related mortality might be driven by the more crystallized verbal abilities, leading to greater leadership roles,” he suggested.

The study was published in the journal Intelligence. 

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