Revenge of the Nerds Lied to Us! Popular People Do Better in Life

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Many of us have believed that being a late bloomer was a good thing, that our shy, socially awkward ways in high school would be rewarded in spades if we made it to graduation. We heard that if you go through middle school and high school as an ugly duckling, and you are guaranteed to blossom into a brain scientist supermodel in college. Whereas, on the flip side, the popular kids who were never forced to develop personalities will have their shining stars doused in the cold, hard waters of reality. BURN, BABY, BURN. Bummer alert: It turns out, teen movies of the 80s lied to us. Steff goes on to run a Fortune 500, Johnny Lawrence owns his own successful dojo, and Biff doesn't grow up to work at a local auto-detailer, he actually owns a strip club casino in the alternate future hell that we're all living in. Everything is a lie!


According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the kid who threw a slushy in your face is probably a candidate in a presidential race somewhere. Well, maybe not exactly, but it's probably true that the kids who had multiple prom date requests is probably doing A-OK. That's because kids who develop decent social skills tend to transfer those skills into enjoying a more successful later in life.

In fact, the study determines that the top fifth of the high school popularity pyramid garnered a 10% wage premium nearly 40 years after graduation, compared to those in the bottom fifth. They figured out popularity by asking about 4,300 high school students — all male, of course, the study began in 1957 so why include any women? All they had to look forward to was a life of boinking, boozing, and baby-making — to name their three best friends (awww). The students who received the most votes were the most popular, and their success tracked throughout the rest of their lives, a la Michael Apted's Up Series.

Its authors say they don't view popularity as an "innate personality trait." Instead, popularity pays because those who learn to play the game in high school are figuring out what they need to know to succeed when they enter the workplace. The report suggests schools may want to join their academic mission with one that helps students build their social skills.

Although I want to definitely want to argue with the flimsiness of the study, this part is hella true. Thinking back to high school, many of the popular kids were extremely affable and outgoing. I don't think that's the whole story though, and I have some thoughts. You see, in high school, you have your athletes, your basket cases, your princesses, and your criminals Jkjk, but there are totally universal popular types, and we all know them. Breaking it down isn't that difficult. I believe they fit into all of two categories.

1. Kids who have a lot of something that's socially desirable. Whether it's money, sports talent, high school-style good looks — these kids can't lose. Or, it's way harder for them to lose. As long as they are able to speak in coherent-ish sentences and walk upright-ish, they probably have plenty of lunchtime companions on the quad.

2. The hustlers. The kids who float between groups, shaking hands, making jokes, and generally Really Nice. These are the people who, I believe, do well in life because they figured out how to play the game. They are able to resist the marshmallow temptation, they refuse to admit to the known fact that it can feel really good to poop (I remember reading that not admitting pooping feels good makes you a liar, but it also makes you more successful because you know not to tell people the truth about your bodily functions), and they're just better at putting on a happy face, and enjoying (?) this crazy ride called life. Or, they might be sociopaths.

But, probably, they just really care about being part of the action, or are smart enough to be "on" when they need to be, and they're generally just pretty easy-going and pleasant to be around. No wonder everyone wants to kick it with these kids, they are the bomb! I think maybe the word for it is "charming." Of course, having a good home life and a little money never hurt anyone, and kids with both are at a distinct advantage.

Social interactions within the group of classmates provide the bridge to the adult world as they train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles.


The more friends you make, the better you are at making friends. Dropping knowledge bombs, study! Of course, it probably helps to just be a white man, in general, so I'm not sure how seriously I can take something like this until it includes a diverse pool of participants and takes into account modern influences like social media and flushing toilets. And, seriously, no matter what any study says, shit gets hella better for pretty much everyone after high school. Stay in school, kids. Stay in school, and then get the fuck out.

Popularity [The National Bureau of Economic Research]
Popular Kids in High School Earn More Later in Life [Wall Street Journal]



I feel there's confusion over the definition of "popular": it's often conflated with "the exclusive group"... but those people tend to hang out only with each other and aren't universally well-liked or actually popular in that many people consider them to be friends. People may view them as aspirational figures, but I wouldn't say they're actually popular. The truly popular kids, who are well-liked by everyone, may not always fall into the "popular kid" stereotype. I think this is the group the study is looking at.

Though maybe I'm just speaking from my own high school experience?