So I'm designing an alien race loosely based on the Kafers from the tabletop RPG 2300 AD. These aliens not only become temporarily hyper intelligent as an electrochemical effect of their equivalent to the "fight-flight-freeze" response, but also have permanent increases in fluid intelligence over a longer period of time as a result of being in what are perceived to be threatening situations. This later effect can even be accompanied by slight increases in brain size (which their braincase compensates for over time) if it’s extreme enough.

These aliens are initially psychologically similar to humans. If never exposed to stimuli that activates their fight-flight-freeze response, (described above), they generally will maintain an equivalent human fluid intelligence of around 70 IQ, but can theoretically reach a genius-level intellect if they've been having a bad enough time in life. It should also be noted that they don’t necessarily enjoy being in threatening situations any more than humans do. So we would expect a low likelihood of an “addiction to danger” psychological condition within their race.

I’m mostly curious as to the psychological and sociological implications of such an organism, say, if you got an ancestral hunter-gatherer population of this species, and let evolution do its thing for about 200,000 years or so, how will this affect their psychology and social structures, especially when they finally start building permanent settlements and advancing past the stone age.

Edited: Grammar and some extra clarification.

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    $\begingroup$ A race which becomes smarter when in danger: just like humans, right? Necessity is the mother of invention as we say. Or if you prefer Latin, necessitas mater artium. (Even Plato admits the [real creator of the ideal city will be the needs of the people](perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plat. Rep. 369c&lang=original) (Republic, book 2, section 396c.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ "they don’t necessarily enjoy being in threatening situations any more than humans do" uh, you may have just outed yourself as being an actual alien, because the humans you're describing don't seem much like real-life humans. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Humans are totally addicted to danger, what are you talking about? $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea that the punishment for crimes of negligence amongst these people could be to subject the offender to a series of terrifying hazards until they're smart enough to not do it again. Get busted for drink driving? Well, we're gonna strap you to the front of a rally car, and do circuits until you understand what you did wrong. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen well, not warzones, but adrenaline is a multi-billion (if not trillion) dollar industry. Every skydiving gig, every ski slope, every jetski rental, every roller coaster ride, etc are all designed to trick the primal part of the human brain into believing it's in danger and releasing those sweet chemicals. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 19:31

6 Answers 6


Evolution by Drama:

Despite the fact your species doesn't like being threatened, no evolution is an island. Your species is CAPABLE of being smarter. The real question is, WHY is this only triggered by stress? If intelligence is an unmitigated benefit, then the daily stresses of life would eventually trigger intelligence, and everyone in their society would be smarter. The advantages would just be too great.

So let's figure out why they aren't ALL smarter.

  • Hierarchical: Your species has a caste system or ranked leadership system. The leaders are the ones doing the fighting and thinking for the rest of society like in Brave New World. The rank-and-file citizen is only happy doing their crappy jobs for angry, overbearing aggressive bosses if they don't think about it too much. So if the alpha citizen dies, their successor(s) takes over and faces immediate stresses that make them smarter - but also dominating and aggressive, so they have more semi-violent stressful situations that push their intelligence up and increase their dominance.
  • Caloric restriction: Being smart is expensive. Your smart individuals consume vast amounts of calories. So you can only have either a small percentage of smart people, have people smart for a short period. If you have the whole society shift to smart for too long, they need to establish a new stable culture with lots of calories. Historically, during disasters, this meant a period of social adaptation where the species carved out new ecological niches for itself.
  • Secondary Consequences: Your species has other BAD things that happen to their bodies when they get smart. Maybe it significantly shortens lifespan. Maybe it causes muscle atrophy so the smart individuals become sedentary like village elders. Maybe the expansion of the cranial cavity comes with a 30% mortality rate. So the "part-time-smart" is an evolutionary workaround to compensate for the physical problems. Like ever-broadening hips for human females giving birth to big-headed kids, this adaptation compensates for the consequences of smartness, while still giving the species access to extra intelligence and the good things that brings.

Overall, I would guess from the logic of most of these arguments that your species should actually have less intelligence and smaller brains than humans do prior to boosting. The bulk of their people would be mild-mannered citizens complacent with their jobs on farms and doing manual labor. Social structures would be as stable as possible to maintain the status quo. The rulers would want to keep people happy and stress-free, because the more stressed people get, the smarter and less compliant they get. Eventually, it would lead to revolution, famine, and the establishment of a new social structure that would let people calm down and go back to being simple citizens.

An odd consequence of this system is that as their civilization progressed to higher levels of technology, there would be increasing pressures to have smarter individuals to manage the technology. Although the day-to-day tech would be made extremely easy to use, it would need smart stressed people to design and maintain it. So the society would have structural pressures that would favor increased levels of stress as technology made people's lives theoretically less stressful. Social structures with things WRONG with society would generate stress until enough people were smart enough to deal with it, leading to reduced stress.

You might find there was a pressure to either have a caste system where a certain group maintained an artificial stress level (like a priest/Aristoi group) or a sexual dimorphism where society gave one gender or another more stress by social role - think either 1950's suburbia or the Tuareg culture.

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    $\begingroup$ Using technology doesn't mean understanding technology. We daily use incredibly complicated technologies. But most of it is just as easy as pressing buttons. Repairing can be also easy if one has a long manual with many steps and all that is requires is to follow these steps. $\endgroup$
    – Colombo
    Commented Mar 7, 2021 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Colombo I think I made that point in the question. The concern is whenever you have technological advances, you'd need more smart people to get it worked out. Unless the advance of technology is glacially slow (which would be a fun byproduct to introduce in a story), increasing tech needs innovators. I did have a bit of vision of Idiocracy when thinking about the question, though - designing truly fool-proof tech is an amusing idea. Consumer culture is also very useful here; make stuff that gets thrown away as soon as it breaks. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 7, 2021 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ ad) glacially slow technological progress I thought that the effect of such intelligence increase would be a punctuated equilibrium en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuated_equilibrium where technology will rapidly increase due to new pressures, but due to an increase in stress, all the problems will be solved in just few generations, until a new threat emerges. $\endgroup$
    – Colombo
    Commented Mar 7, 2021 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Colombo Hard to say. Depends on the reasons everyone isn't always smart. Hierarchy= glacial progress as those in charge block change. Other options might lend themselves to acute crises episodically creating mass disruptions, settlements. Population growth due to good food=crisis, stabilization, growth in populous, new famine, etc. Or how about a tech-stratified society where elites develop tech but don't share it except to deal w crises, then suppress to re-stabilize? It's a cool set of possibilities, and humans barely understand themselves, so who knows? $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 0:20

Dunbar Number

One of the interesting psychological and social implications of increased intelligence is Dunbar Number.

Dunbar Number is often described as increased trust. I think it’s more appropriate to say you “get” a larger number of people— understanding their point of view provided only the broadest strokes of their background. The big difference between trust and this is that you also understand when you may be violating boundaries, or be in conflict.

From a utility perspective, Dunbar Number increases the maximum possible size of your tightly knit professional or other organizations before they split into focus groups. It is believed to increase the maximum size of the smallest chunk of “community” (what feels like a small town, your band of brothers, a pack, or a tribe)

Trust Gap

There may be an actual name for this, but there’s been research indicating that there is a band of intelligence within which two or more people can work well together.

I’ve felt the metaphor to explain this is reading level. Beyond a certain point, the less intelligent person is increasingly required to take on faith the interpretation of the unintelligible words (reading level) or unfollowable thinking (people). It becomes an increasingly difficult ask. From the other person’s perspective, an increasing amount of information gets lost in translation. The more intelligent partner is increasingly required to also take on faith that the coworker understands whatever the topic is and is making informed judgements.

If the gap in your aliens’ intelligence is pretty great, then they probably live as actual aliens among their peers - coping with lives of miserable social isolation, not being really understood but trying to get along. Because of the higher Dunbar Number, they probably “get” that.


Humans try all sorts of practices (education, prayer, “brain games”, exercise, good diet, meditation) and take all sorts of drugs (caffeine, tobacco, chewing on cocoa leaves, industrialized cocaine, British and German experiments with meth, nootropics, hallucinogens) to keep the intelligence performance boosts we can get out of them.

This may be a cynical perspective, but I believe your alien society would set the performance benchmark of your people slightly above “natural”. The bottom half of the social band will be taking whatever performance enhancers are accepted by society (smoking, coffee, prayer) just to keep up. The middle band will optionally be doing the same thing for an “edge” at work, and the top tier will be bifurcated with people enjoying themselves as they are, and the most hardcore competitors taking every method available to them to create and keep in top shape constantly.


They would initially have a much higher mortality.

When in the fright/flight/freeze state humans have evolved to go to a lower state of consciousness. This state lets us bypass much of our brains, letting us come up with a solution much faster and then act on it. The phrase "I never thought as fast in my life" is tightly bound to this. The "problem" with this is that you dont make the best solutions, but that doesnt matter in a low-tech environment where the fastest solution is more likely to let you survive than your smartest one.

These creatures would be more intelligent but our conscious solution to a problem is often worse than our subconscious solution (again, in low-tech environments). A great example is people who are trapped outside in the cold: a child is much more likely to find a hole to hide in and survive until its found, but adults will consciously assume they need to find help and will walk in circles for hours exposing themselves to the elements and freeze to death faster. The conscious solution in those situations is the worst. So your aliens would have a much higher death rate than the "dumb" humans who immediately create one panicked plan and stick with it.

When technology and knowledge increase you will first see a higher survival rate for these creatures. Of you know that something poisoness bit you and you can create an antidote rather than run away in panick you have a greater chance of survival. This all gradually stops as mass-media takes its toll and people get the increasing ability to spread misinformation both on purpose and by accident.

Parents of this species will be encouraged to still give their children the biggest advantage as possible, so they would likely invent terror-schools. Schools designed with peaks and lulls in the children's stress levels, scaring them with a "test that will define their life" or tests that will result in severe punishments when you fail (and students who perform too well will be punished for smaller infractions). Followed by healthy low-stress downtime so the children wont be high-functioning PTSD patients (and believe me, school alone is more than enough to get PTSD if you are unlucky).

Due to the fluid intelligence that remains for some time after being scared, adults will use this when they need an intelligence boost. From interviews to last-minute crunchtime to finding the solution to that one last question, they'll want to get a high stress level. To ensure they arent getting complacent they can use various methods: fights aimed at leaving nasty physical damage like a broken bone or large cut that you can only get out of if you win the fight, doing things they fear deliberately or risking something that person values which they will lose if they fail.


Some in that race will intentionally self-panic. I believe I would.

Would you (the reader, a normal human) rather be "Dumb and Happy" or "Smart and Petrified"? This choice is not obvious and people pick their own choice for their own reasons. Now if "smart and petrified" made you actually smarter? For me at least the choice is obvious, but this would not be true for everyone. (Happy sounds pretty nice)

Projecting myself into your species:

  • I value my own intelligence
    • I do not want to be dumber, and will take steps to avoid decline in intelligence if I'm aware of them.
    • I want to be smarter if theres a way to get it.
    • I will spend finite time and resources on this.
  • Danger is my own perception and subjective.
    • You pull a gun and point it at me I'm freezing up (probably because I've never seen one before outside of a screen) but someone with training can stay cool.
    • I can look outside and see an orange sky and thick ash from a major bushfire nearby and think "ho hum. Australia's gotta Australia". Had I not seen this a dozen times before I'd flee and die on the road like most panicking people do in these fires.
    • I once had a panic attack after having a drink spiked. It reoccured every time I thought of the events, and, yes I control what I think about.
    • So in conclusion I'm part of the process that determines whether my body enters that panic mode.
  • Danger is all around if you look for it.
    • One quarintine worker slips up and Covid could get out in Australia again.
    • Cops who just randomly hurt or kill people if they're having a bad day. Which I've personally witnessed before.
    • One more random government lockdown and me and my entire house loses their job. Governments have been locking down with hours notice when covid is even suspected to leak.
    • Climate change is making '1 in 100 year" disasters occur monthly, and it's getting worse, and 51% of our government treats climate change like a fairy tale while in office.
    • Health, diet and nutrition information is all over the place, but all the simple and tasty foods are probably killing me.
  • I view unintelligent people who want to live in peace as part of the problem with these long term issues.
    • Climate change is a hard problem, people who dont want to hear about it - just sit back and cash their coal-backed-dividends - are part of the problem.
    • Cops killing black people is made worse by the lazy uneducated white person practicing casual racism.
    • People in places where covid is still spreading are refusing to wear masks. "Oh covids not that bad, it only kills old people, and I'm not old, and Bill Gates made it anyway".
    • Choosing to live in peace and ignoring long term dangers and subtly making the problem worse is unpalatable to my values.

So let's combine this together:

If I can control my own mental state to some extent, and one of those states results in me becoming smarter, which I desire, I will enter that state as often as I can. I will stay awake at night panicking about climate change and antibiotic resistant superbugs and animal extinction and other long term perils, because I value intelligence more than I value serenity. The choice to stop living in fear and be dumb and be part of the problem would be unfathomable.

No I don't like living in fear, but it's better than being dumb and part of the problem.

Applying this back to your race, I suspect you'll get a split in your population based on their answer to this question. You society would have 2 extremes: "Panickers vs dumbs", and the differences between the two would be analogous to left v right politics today.

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    $\begingroup$ This is where I was starting from with my answer. The hard part is explaining why smart doesn't universally equal better. It needs some alien psychology to explain, because humans would inevitably choose smart/personal superiority over dumb/slow. There would need to be consequences for the system to work. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:46

Forget high school, it's Battle Royale!

Your race gets smarter from threatening situations. As they get smarter, their threat-assesment gets better, preventing them from weekly horror movie sessions to become a genius. This naturally limits the increase in intelligence for the vast majority of the race. If you know 99.9% of people survive some artificial threat scenario, it's not a threat. Otherwise, they'd become smarter every commute.

To still reap the benefits of increased intelligence, some percentage of adolescents is selected to take part in Hunger Games/Battle Royale style fights to the death. The survivors come out significantly smarter and can look forward to leadership positions in society. To maintain the increased intelligence, these leaders are allowed to ascend in position and power by killing and taking the place of a higher-stationed leader. This keeps them permanently on edge, because there are always new threats from lower ranks. Conversely, a strike at lower stationed leaders is not allowed and sanctioned by society and other leaders.

When times are good, relatively few members are sent or volunteer to take part in these trials. When resources are scarce or an indirect threat is identified (say climate change), the rate of these deadly trials is greatly increased and survivors tasked with coming up with a solution or taking part in more rounds of Battle Royale if they fail.

A direct external threat (alien invasion, war, etc) results in hordes of grunts being sent to fight and the survivors forming the real army that employs actual strategy and tactics.

This of course leads to a caste-like division in society, where the vast majority just goes about their routine job and mundane life, while there's a continuous and violent struggle happening over their heads. The leadership is motivated to keep the number of people sent to trials to the minimum necessary to increase their own longevity while still preventing the society as a whole from losing direction and ending up in a truly threatening situation.


I haven't seen this mentioned in the other answers, so I thought I'd share.

Don't underestimate the power of familiarity!

What I mean is that the first time you encounter a dangerous situation, it stresses you out and you are "in danger". The fiftieth time it happens, it becomes "oh, that again" and there is no feeling of being in danger. As an example, remember the first time you took the drivers seat and started in traffic, and how ten years later it's routine to just grab the car and go on. The danger is the same. All the stimuli are the same, but it has become familiar enough to not warrant any kind of danger response.

As a side note, roller coasters have just become the best thing ever, as if they weren't already!


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