Nearly four out of 10 Americans have never left the place where they were born, but most citizens have moved someplace new at least once in their lives.

A new study of mobility patterns suggests that people who move (and where they move) may be linked to IQ levels. Even more, the research indicates those who grew up in rural areas and ended up in cities ranked among the highest intelligence scores. “I’m interested in the psychological basis of demographic behavior and outcomes,” writes Dr. Markus Jokela, University of Helsinki, on his website. Along with his newest study of American mobility, appearing in Intelligence, he has focused much of his work on fertility, mortality, and mental disorders.

Migration Trends

According to a Pew Research Center survey, the annual migration rate, which plateaued at about 20 percent during the mid-1960s, has drifted to a low of nearly 12 percent in 2008 (the most recent statistical year). Pew Research also finds that, when asked for their reasons, movers are most likely to say economic opportunity is why they moved, while those who stay behind say their decision is based on family bonds and the strength of their home connections. Overall, Pew found 57 percent of people have not lived outside their current state, 37 percent have never left their hometown, 15 percent have lived in two states, 12 percent in three states, and 15 percent in four or more states. All in all, it appears the myth of American mobility is not true of many.

To examine the issue of American migration, Jokela looked at the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a long-term study that tracked the same young adult participants over time. Of the total participants, nearly 11,500 people had been involved in at least one follow-up survey by 1996. Focusing on this subset, he identified where they had lived at baseline — either in a rural, suburban, urban, or central city setting — and where they lived at follow-up. Then, he compared this to their scores on a series of intelligence tests.

What did he find? Higher test scores predicted rural-to-urban migration, a link found to be strongest between the ages of 25 and 29. Yet, higher mental ability also predicted reverse migration from cities to suburbs and rural regions. People with higher IQ scores generally tended to move, in other words. And, while central cities magnetize the smartest people from rural, suburban, and outer-urban areas, especially when they are younger, city centers eventually lose many of their brightest to these areas later. "The most general message is that the selective residential mobility we observe associated with socioeconomic status has its psychological underpinnings in intelligence differences," Jokela told CityLab. His previous work has examined how individual characteristics — including temperament, personality, and body weight — predict peopleʼs migration patterns over the life course.

Source: Jokela M. Flow of cognitive capital across rural and urban United States. Intelligence. 2014.