New Research Supports Smarty-Pants-Unpopularity Theory

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Photo: Peter Hapak/New York Magazine

Nobody, as the ancient wisdom passed down by our forefathers has it, likes a smarty-pants. But what sorts of smarty-pants-ness most turn off our fellow human beings, and what are the consequences? A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science sheds some light on these vital societal questions — at least in the context of German eighth graders.

For the study, Katrin Retzsch of the University of Bamberg in Germany (currently a visiting scholar at Stanford) and a colleague took a deep dive into the social structures of 20 eighth-grade classes in southeast Germany. They asked the students how much they liked each of their classmates, as well as whether they felt academically superior to them (imagine being pulled out of class and prompted by a serious-looking adult to say possibly mean things about Hans), and also checked the students’ grades in a few different subjects.

The more a student felt unrealistically superior to a specific other student, the less he or she was liked by the other student in return,” the researchers wrote, as relayed in the study’s press release. But when a student felt superior to everyone — and we’ve all met people like that — they didn’t incur the same sort of social cost (Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is mentioned in the paper, of course). Kids seemed to be able to distinguish between general mini-blowhards and those for whom the sense of superiority stemmed from something more personal.

Next up for Retzsch is work on full-grown adults, who, as we all know, never overestimate their abilities or treat others poorly.