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No Revenge of the Nerds?

The wages of popularity.

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“Sixteen, clumsy, and shy, that’s the story of my life.” So sang Morrissey, patron saint of high-school outcasts, and if a recent study from the Institute of Social and Economic Research is correct, the Smiths’ singer may have been exactly right. Ever since Bill Gates soldered his first motherboard, every former high-school loner, nerd, geek, spaz, and misfit (among which I proudly count myself) has been sold the idea that we’re living in a Golden Age of Ascendant Nerd-dom. We invented the Internet and made dot-com millions! We conquered the multiplex with our hobbit epics! We swarmed TV, supplanting cop shows with convoluted geek-bait about castaways and Battlestars! Sure, we had to endure years of high-school torture, while the white-toothed and flaxen-haired held court at the cafeteria’s choicest tables. But who are the losers now?

Well, maybe it is still us—the misfits. The ISER’s study, titled simply (and cruelly) “Popularity,” purports to uncover “the relevance of noncognitive traits for achieving economic success in life”—in other words, it looks like it’s the popular kids, not necessarily the smart ones, who succeed. The study used survey data collected from members of a 1957 Wisconsin high-school class, in which respondents were asked to nominate up to three best friends they had in high school. Each student was then evaluated based on how many nominations they received—you know, just like revoting for prom king and queen.

The study uncovered “a popularity premium” that seems to quasi-scientifically confirm what Kurt Vonnegut once observed: “Life is nothing but high school … you get into real life and that turns out to be high school again—class officers, cheerleaders, and all.” There was a 2 percent bump in how much money the former student made for each additional friendship nomination he or she received. And friends were worth 40 percent of additional years of education, earnings-wise; so instead of doing that master’s, you should have made two and a half more friends.

This study may seem to burst our Revenge of the Nerds fantasies, but it’s logical that people who are attractive, likable, and socially comfortable—the class officers, the cheerleaders—should get ahead in corporate settings. And before you develop further retroactive rage about high school, think of this: The unpopular belief that there’s more to life than elbowing your way into a prized spot at the best cafeteria table is precisely what sets misfits apart—it’s why the outcasts are cast out. Instead of identifying with your now-well-paid oppressors, keep in mind that, back when you were a Morrissey-listening loner in the tenth grade, your goal wasn’t to out-earn the cool kids. It was to get the hell out of places like Wisconsin, go find your own tribe, and pursue a different idea of success.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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