Sorry Nerds, Popular Kids Are More Successful Later in Life

The some-day-you’ll-work-for-me creed of the highly intelligent and socially inept might prove to be inconsistent with reality. New data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study shows that the popular kids in high school tend to make more money in the long run when compared to their nerdy counterparts.

The survey looks at 10,000 men and women who graduated from a Wisconsin high school in 1957 and routinely checked in with them over the years to gain data for their multi-decade study.

To determine popularity, the then-students were asked to write down three names of people who were their close friends. The names that appeared the most often were considered the most popular of the group.

The working paper on popularity helped clarify a couple things. The popular students tended to be from “warm early family environments.” Students tend to list like-minded or similar people to themselves, a common trend referred to as homophily—we tend to like people who are similar to us, makes sense. And finally, the most popular people were traditionally older and more intelligent than their peers.

The students’ future has the most interesting data, as the Washington Post writes:

As the researchers looked toward the future, they found that 35 years down the road, the more popular students earned 2 percent more than their peers. That’s nearly half — 40 percent — of the wage differential that students accrue from an additional year of education.

If a student moved from the 20th percentile of popular up to the 80th percentile it would yield a salary 10 percent higher — 40 years later. This held true after accounting for a number of separate variables, including family background, school quality, cognitive ability and adult personality traits.

Explanations for this phenomena vary but the most telling one is simply that the qualities valued in the work place are incredibly similar to those valued in high school popularity. The ability to interact with a set of diverse social skills combined with a moderate level of intelligence align people with success in organizations with their own hierarchical and minor political systems.

A recent change in the social-dynamics of groups since the study started in the 50s is the rise of the socially adept and widely-respected nerd. The combination would indicate wild success in the mainstream world. It’s easy to discount this working paper for many reasons: Wisconsin isn’t a good representation of the whole population, things have changes a great deal since 1957, careers today didn’t exist when the study started, etc. But, it is valid that those who hold upper management and executive positions in companies tend to be more likable, or at least socially skilled, people. The ability to communicate and interact with others is just as important to employers as the strict ability to perform a task.


The Washington Post

  • Shannon McKee

    Yeah, I’m SOOO sure Bill Gates was a popular kid rather than a nerd. This so-called “study” is BS and likely done by former popular kids.

    • Blake J. Graham

      Gates is clearly an outlier. And the study uses positive networking, which is similar to popularity.

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