Apr 26 2010

Why Are Nerds Unpopular?

On the latest episode of the SGU an audience member (it was a live recording) asked about the youth culture today and why kids don’t seem to be interested in science, or much else of perceived intellectual value. I basically responded that this question is thousands of years old – every generation, apparently, has felt this about the youth of their time. Things are not necessarily getting worse, although confirmation bias and a narrow perspective may make it seem so.

The generation question aside – this also raises the question of how to make science and skepticism more popular in general, but especially with the next generation. A listener then sent me a link to the following article: Why Nerds are Unpopular. The author writes:

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

But why? Basically, the author argues that smart kids invest their time and energy into the things that they like. Meanwhile, being popular in high school is a full-time job, requiring a great deal of time and effort – time the nerds are unwilling to commit.

I found his argument unconvincing. The article goes into many other issues, about the roots of teenage angst, that you may find interesting, but I want to focus on this primary point – nerds are unpopular because they don’t invest time in being popular. While this is likely to be one factor, there are others that I can readily identify from my own experience. The answer, as much as there is one, is multifactorial and there will be a different mix of reasons in different kids, different schools, and different cultures.

First, let’s not avoid the obvious – many nerds are socially awkward. Having a high IQ does not necessarily mean you have a high EQ (emotional quotient) or that you are politically savvy. I am not suggesting that all nerds fit this stereotype, but some certainly do, and to varying degrees. To some extent, people will follow their talents because it’s the path of least resistance. So for the book-smart but socially inept kid – of course they will choose to value and excel intellectually, and devalue and ignore social networking, fashion, and physical pursuits.

But if you think about it, you probably knew in school, and still know, people who combine talents in these various realms to different degrees. There are smart athletes, and smart but socially savvy kids, and even not-so-smart nerds.

We must also consider that popularity is also complex – because there are cliques and subcultures. Many kids will seek out and network with other kids who share their interests (again, to varying degrees). School also forces us to socialize to some extent across whatever social bounds form. But in general the jocks hang out with the jocks and the nerds hang out with the nerds. From this subcultures emerge. Kids seek to be popular within their subculture, while simultaneously trying to raise the status of their group. So nerds often try to be popular among their fellow nerds. Sometimes this can result in desperately isolated cliques – sacrificing and even denigrating any popularity in the broader culture in order to fit in with a small group of  like-minded compatriots. Having trouble fitting in – you can go goth (for example) and give up on any broader popularity, but at least you will instantly fit in with the other goths. This, unfortunately, is also the root of cults – cults provide instant acceptance at the expense of a rigid “us vs them” ideology.

Subcultures also mean that interests and experiences reinforce the separation of the subcultures. The Big Bang Theory is a good representation of this – the nerds on the show share common interests and knowledge which becomes part of the glue of their subculture. They can share inside jokes about Star Wars and LOTR, discuss science, and entertain themselves with jokes about the low intellectual capacity of the muscular jock boyfriend of the pretty girl next door.

Cultures have inertia. Kids have their own culture, and many subcultures, and they create awaiting receptacles as kids try to fit in somewhere.

So “popularity” is a socially complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and there is therefore no single cause.

But what of the original question – how do we as activist skeptics make science, intellectualism, and skepticism more generally accepted in our own culture? It is not, as some would argue, hopeless. I offer as examples the fact that not every school has the same culture. I went to a prep school, and I can tell you that the culture was somewhat flipped – the academically successful kids tended to be more generally popular. There were still subcultures and different groups with different interests and characters – but generally, being smart was considered a virtue. The culture of the school generally respected hard work, integrity, and achievement.

This is an artificial situation in a way – a selective population, both self-selective, and selected by their parents (who were probably generally overachievers) and the school itself. But it demonstrates that children will not inevitably form a subculture that generally values beauty and athleticism and devalues intelligence. The culture of this school was that achievement was valued in all its forms, but especially intellectual.

Other countries also have different cultures. In Asia, generally, scholastic achievement and hard work is more highly valued by the broader culture.

The bottom line is this – don’t assume that an American public school experience is universal and broadly applicable social lessons can be derived from it.

To me what this means is that we can slowly move the culture in the direction of valuing smarts and even nerdiness. Bill Gates has done this, to some degree – we now celebrate the alpha nerd. Kids see wealthy powerful nerds with the attractive mates, and they get the message. Computers have done this – once the sole domain of nerds, they are now chic. Even cheerleaders will whip out their iPhones to text their friends – using a computer device to communicate? Twenty years ago that was unbelievably nerdy.

We are still fighting the sit-com and TV culture. While I have seen more programs celebrating smarts (CSI, The Mentalist, Jimmy Neutron, Mythbusters, etc.) we are still plagued by the sit-com nerd stereotype, and the general promotion of an anti-intellectual culture, especially among kids. There is room for improvement there.

Also – we have to consider that we have various goals. We would like to swell the ranks of those kids who value intelligence and reason, but also we want to empower those kids who are already there. Encourage them to pick up their heads and see that smarts are valued in at least segments of the broader culture. The older they get, the more being smart is cool.

I also think the high-school culture significantly flips when you get to college. Again, we have a somewhat selective subpopulation. But also we have a different subculture. Even if we can’t penetrate high-school culture that much (I am not saying we can’t, but even if) once kids get to college or even just into their 20s, when they are really searching for themselves intellectually, promoting a culture of science and skepticism can have a great impact.

I think the evidence suggests that we are actually succeeding. The number of people who show up to skeptical meetings is not only increasing, their average age is dramatically decreasing. We have a significant following of people in their twenties. Sure – we have a lot of work to do. But it’s not hopeless. The future, in my opinion, is bright.

43 responses so far

43 Responses to “Why Are Nerds Unpopular?”

  1. mlegoweron 26 Apr 2010 at 9:25 am

    Just as a note, there are quite a few typos in the post. Might want to give it a once over and see if you can fix some of them before the rest of the world gets here. Still, great post. As an economist, this would be an interesting question to try and model with some sort of network formation/matching model.

  2. daijiyobuon 26 Apr 2010 at 9:44 am

    Nerds are elitists. And elitists are bad, according to a certain part of the political spectrum.

    I wonder what must happen amongst that crowd, when their children are Talented and Gifted, and later become successful professionals after getting Honors in college!

    They must be aghast. Perhaps there’s a closet for that, like many things-that-must-not-be-mentioned.

    Perhaps there are even camps for remediation: teaching ‘mommy-knowledge’ and ‘aw-shucks-knowledge’ to them so they can socially adjust.


  3. KeithJMon 26 Apr 2010 at 10:15 am

    Great post. I think the idea of subgroups that inadvertently distance themselves from the majority as the individuals try to fit into the subgroup is very insightful.

    It’s much like politics, where the real risk in primaries of either party is that the candidates have to work so hard to appeal to the base of their party that they can render themselves completely unacceptable to moderates (and thus lose the election because of decisions they made to win the party nomination).

  4. SpicyCupcakeon 26 Apr 2010 at 10:16 am

    @Daijiyobu – I can tell you what my parents did. They first yelled at me not to be a smart ass every time I pointed out something that was wrong with what they said or what they were doing. They acted like I was an idiot for any point of view they did not agree with. When I got to college, they attempted to control my course of study until I finally just got a business degree as a way to get a job and get away from them (a decision I regret). Currently, my parents will say something that is incorrect and I begin to explain to them the (what I think is interesting) truth of the matter. The response I get is an interruption of (Direct quote),”I don’t want to be educated!”

    Of course my parents know everything about me. They think they know who I vote for and what my opinion is because I sound just like one of those intellectuals. They all have the same opinion on everything after all.

  5. Lucianon 26 Apr 2010 at 10:38 am

    Great post Doc. I wasn’t in public high school too long ago (3 yrs) and I have to say, without tooting my own horn here, that my good friends and I were popular and also had the trifecta of the attractive, athletic, and intelligent. We were a rarity, I’m sure, but I think it was because we were the popular folks and had political sway to an extent that smart was valued. It’s sad how much I miss it…
    I know the term we’re using is nerds, and nerds are automatically assumed to be unpopular. I’ve been called a nerd since I’ve left high school and I’d agree, I might even wear the label proudly now.
    As to how we can make the shift to intellect being valued over athleticism and beauty…Hip-hop? I’d imagine that most high school students haven’t yet started to question their narrow concept of the universe. Putting a dent in their egos would help. Maybe some kind of campaign to help students understand that they’re overwelmed with information on a daily basis and that a large percentage is misinformation purposely attemping to decieve them would do some good. I leave it to the schools to give them good critical thinking skills, but…
    Best of luck to solving this one.

  6. ccbowerson 26 Apr 2010 at 10:59 am

    House is another show that celebrates “smarts” in addition to the ones that you have mentioned. All of them are doing quite well from a ratings perspective (and tend to be pretty good shows).
    I see an increase in the number of shows like these lately, and I have mixed feelings about them. I do like that they promote logic and reasoning, and have smart and witty major characters (House and the Mentalist in particular). One thing I don’t like is that the smart characters often don’t have to try very hard. Its as if their excellence is innate, and that everyone else is has third tier brains in comparison.

    Making characters like this minimizes the hard work it takes to accumulate knowledge and intergrate information in order to obtain the excellence these characters demonstrate. Of course this is part of our culture to some degree. We also are facinated when we hear stories of Babe Ruth hitting two homeruns after a night of hard drinking.

  7. Steven Novellaon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:15 am

    I agree, and have commented before, on the problem that smarts are presented as effortless talent, rather than the result of hard work. This is a separate cultural “problem” – valuing talent over hard-won skills.

    It is probably most adaptive for a culture to value hard work, because that is something people can do something about.

    Richard Wiseman has pointed this out also – parents should not praise kids for doing a good job, but rather for making a good effort. Kids cannot control the outcome, but they can control their own effort – so that should be praised.

    This may be partly the root of this problem also. Parents like to see talent in their kids, because they can (genetically) take credit for it – “the kid’s naturally smart, like his old man.” Or perhaps it just an evolutionary adaptation – being attracted to good genes.

    Anyway – for whatever reason – we overvalue talent vs hard work, and this should be flipped.

  8. Draalon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:44 am

    I think that hard work is rewarded in college. I went to a private high school and I knew the nerds. A number of us went to the same state University that’s known for being a great engineering school. Anyway, my high school valedictorian and another real smart kid both flunked out of college after two years. They were naturally smart but didn’t know how to work hard. High school was a joke to them and they weren’t challenged; college was a whole new experience as we weren’t spoon fed anymore and it required individual study to learn new material.
    Again and again, those that studied hard did well. Those that didn’t, didn’t do so well. I was a teaching assistant for a number of years and it was very easy to see who would do well on midterms and finals based solely on the amount of effort went into their homework.

  9. Kostason 26 Apr 2010 at 11:52 am

    But Steve how can you really know how much of it was talent and how much was hard work? In the end the amount of effort you put into it doesnt show anywhere.Only results are visible.You ll never hear from all the people who tried but failed.Maybe its just that people attribute success to talent and not effort.Its probably a combination of both even though i bet its hard to tell how much each factor contributed.

    If indeed theres no talent wouldnt it be better to steer those kids in some other direction? Wouldnt it be horrible and sadistic to teach them that effort pays out (which it generally does, obviously) when the amount of effort they have to put into something specific is unreasonably big compared to others? We have to think about the culture and the society but we have to think about individuals as well. And also think about those who arent talented.

    Being able to focus your attention and putting large amounts of effort on any subject is a “generic talent”. And thats what makes good students excel. In school i was only good at science but later i found out that people who did well in all subjects and chose to study science did better than me even if i did better at science (at school).Maybe we should try to understand what talent is and how to put it in context for the students benefit as well as society’s

  10. Kostason 26 Apr 2010 at 11:56 am


    Exactly but made these kids smart if in the end they failed? How can you separate so easily on your mind those two concepts? What good is being smart if it doesnt get results? Is it a useful concept? What is it exactly? Is it the results on an IQ test ?

  11. daedalus2uon 26 Apr 2010 at 12:14 pm

    I have a blog post on my hypothesis of how feelings of xenophobia occur, that it is a lack of consilience in the “theory of mind” that people use to communicate with. I see the “theory of mind” as the cognitive structure that translates language (in all its forms, including body language, speech, text, gestures, etc.) into mental concepts (and vice versa).


    I think that during late childhood, there is a tremendous compulsion to conform one’s “theory of mind” to the “theory of mind” of the community that one is in. I think this is how language acquisition happens, and how when there is no well-formed language, the cohort of children synthesize a creole de novo from the bits and pieces of the pidgin languages being spoken around them. I think this “peer pressure” is extremely compelling, such that individuals conform their “theory of mind” to match that of their peers.

    After this “theory of mind” becomes “fixed”, then interacting with those who deviate from it invoke feelings of xenophobia (this is more complicated than this single sentence indicates). The feelings of xenophobia are just feelings and so are neutral. How one responds to those feelings is another story. If one responds with trying to understand the “other” on their terms, then one is not a bigot and will eventually come to understand them and the feelings of xenophobia will be gone. If one responds with hatred and refuses to try and understand the “other”, then one is a bigot, and will never change.

    I think it is the subtle differences between the “theory of mind” of those with a nerd orientation compared to those with a non-nerd orientation that results in feelings of xenophobia toward nerds by non-nerds. I think the nerd heuristic of working to try to learn when one does not understand something is fundamentally different than the heuristic of the non-nerds, that of denigrating as unimportant or wrong what one does not understand. I think this difference in approach amplifies differences as nerds and non-nerds age.

  12. Draalon 26 Apr 2010 at 12:19 pm

    In high school, smart kids were the ones in the advanced placement classes, usually got 3.8+ GPA, and did extremely well on the SATs and ACTs. I was one of them. There was little need to study since we were taught in class everything we needed to know to do well on tests. If one was able to pay attention and understand the material in class, you were ‘smart’. College was different since only a portion of the material is covered in lectures. Understanding new material required studying outside of the lecture hall. If you didn’t, you’d do poorly, grade-wise. Being smart AND working hard is a potent combination to do well in college; but I’d argue that working hard will be more fruitful than just being smart.

  13. zoe237on 26 Apr 2010 at 12:27 pm

    House is a nerd but unpopular because he’s a jerk. IME, nerds are popular- the ones who don’t think they are better than everyone else, and don’t go around telling everybody else how smart they are. 😉

    In the schools I’ve been in, the kids in AP class are the ones who parents push the most to get them in. Not exclusively, but mostly.

  14. James Foxon 26 Apr 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Nerds slaughter sacred cows and burst bubbles of ignorance. What’s not to hate?

  15. Kostason 26 Apr 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I am still not so sure if the smart/dumb distinction is so clear cut as everyone seems to think.One major obstacle in trying to make that distinction is identifying how much time one actually pays attention to the courses and the classes.Personally i never had any idea of how much time other people spent doing their homework.I assumed it was more because it made me feel smarter 😉 but i bet everyone else thought the same.Just like studies show that people think they re smarter than average! (which is possible, depending on the distribution of intelligence but i dont think this is the case here)

    Some friends of mine used to give high school level courses on math and physics.They would tell me horror stories of how 15 year old kids could understand that 8-5=3 but not that -5+8=3.And then they would laugh and pronounce them dumb.A natural reaction i have to admit.

    But do you really think they were that stupid? Do you think anyone can be that stupid? I bet those kids werent listening to a word they were being told.If you cant focus your attention you cant apply even the most basic logical rules.I remember doing that myself.Sometimes when i wasnt focused i would just space out and all I wanted was for the teacher to go away and stop bugging me with questions.I think thats a really big part of what people identify as intelligence but you can see its not exactly the same now is it ?

    Also people seem to think knowledge equals intelligence. Thats a little bit stupid if you can pardon my pun. Why is the nerd stereotype always winning spelling bees? The spelling of words is mostly arbitrary, unless you re a linguist, and has very little practical benefit (other than making people think you re smart, or somehow more sophisticated). The value of spelling bees is completely symbolic and what makes those kids good at it is definitely not intelligence but something else altogether. Its what makes them good at all the other courses as well. Focusing on things that may appear trivial but in the end its just what you have to do to be “smart”

  16. Steven Novellaon 26 Apr 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Whenever we get into the discussion of “intelligence” we are wading into a very complex area. There are many kinds of intelligence, or skill sets, or personality traits that all interact.

    I agree that talent is important and should be recognized and even celebrated, and people deserve the fruits of their talent. My problem is with downplaying the role of hard work, or overemphasizing talent.

    I also agree that children/students should be encouraged to recognize their talents and limitations and be realistic. I never liked the phrase “you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.” No, you can’t. Nobody can excel at everything.

    Just watch American Idol if you want to see what happens when parents and friends encourage someone to pursue their dream, despite a horrific lack of natural talent.

  17. Steven Novellaon 26 Apr 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Regarding how do you tell about talent vs hard work – this can be hidden. But I remember from high school – we had a pretty good idea how hard everyone worked and also how mentally nimble they were. I remember that we, in fact, denigrated some of our colleagues as “grinds” – a derogatory term for someone who was not that smart, but worked really hard to compensate.

    And- in college this did flip. College does require discipline and hard work that smart kids don’t need to develop in high school – even at a good prep school, like I attended. I had to learn academic discipline and hard work in college, and it was tough.

    Now, in the work place, we tend to value organization and work ethic over everything else.

    There are lots of independent variables, some generic, others specific. I can think of people I know personally who represent many permutations – smart but lazy, knowledgeable but uncreative and rigid, creative but disorganized, etc. Very few people have the whole package.

  18. zoe237on 26 Apr 2010 at 1:54 pm

    “Some friends of mine used to give high school level courses on math and physics.They would tell me horror stories of how 15 year old kids could understand that 8-5=3 but not that -5+8=3.And then they would laugh and pronounce them dumb.A natural reaction i have to admit.”

    The fad in education right now is Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences.” Obviously a blog such as this would have readers biased towards a math/science view of intelligence, but there are many who are not so good at math, but great at creating stories, artwork, working with their hands. Emotional intelligence is another- something many nerds lack, the ability to relate to people. Is one kind of intelligence really “better” than another? I would be interested in hearing thoughts on this line of thinking. Probably the people who are going to go farthest in life- the most important “intelligence” is people with people skills (along with hard work). So not the nerds, but the businessmen and women.

  19. bindleon 26 Apr 2010 at 2:14 pm

    zoe237, you may be getting us into a study of how the dominance hierarchies are related to some forms of intelligence.

  20. Enzoon 26 Apr 2010 at 6:16 pm

    My thoughts on that, Zoe237, would be that its purely dependent on how you want to define “going farthest in life.” You don’t need exceptional people skills to be extremely successful. My vote would be for people that are fast learners and adaptable — people that can take/find information, learn it quickly and extrapolate from it. That would be my definition of smart. Of course that applies to learning social skills as well as learning how to communicate effectively.

    So if I were going to rank intelligence(s)…

    1. Adaptability and quick thinking with new material
    2. Ability to extrapolate creatively based on knowledge base
    3. Pure memorization and retention
    4. Raw talent that translates into some other form of intelligence (i.e. – being a “genius” at art)

    Hard work probably doesn’t have to be involved, though it often is.

  21. daijiyobuon 26 Apr 2010 at 6:33 pm

    By the way, the NYTs has this up,


    “Exploring Nerdiness, for Laughs.”


  22. ccbowerson 26 Apr 2010 at 9:17 pm

    “Not so smart nerds?”

    From my perspective being intelligent pretty much goes hand-in-hand with nerd-dom. I have seen such creatures, but I think geek better describes them. They usually have obscure interests, but appear to have no big picture understanding of things, lack perspective, and have limited social skills. Of course the meanings of these terms are not well defined, and people often use them as if they are interchangeable.

  23. lurchwurmon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:35 pm


  24. lurchwurmon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Nietzsche was wrong… man can never be overcome 🙁

  25. superdaveon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:41 pm

    any highschool guitarist can tell you girls liked the boy who could play the singer songwriter stuff, not the guys trying to be the next eddie van halen.

    I think this applies. Playing guitar is fun and making music is fun, but really excelling at guitar and becoming a virtuoso takes time and energy, a lot of it, and the end result is playing music that is less accessible to the general population. This is just a person who is a nerd for guitar instead of science or math.

  26. Michael Meadonon 27 Apr 2010 at 1:52 am

    Have we actually demonstrated that the purported underlying phenomenon – kids not being interested in science; nerds being unpopular – actually exists? Or are we just relying on our own anecdotal experiences as nerds growing up?

    I’m not aware of any data on nerd popularity, but the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment has data on 15 year olds’ attitudes to science: http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/15/13/39725224.pdf. These attitudes are very positive, it seems to me. Some findings:
    — 93% say understanding science is important for understanding the natural world
    — 92% said that advances in science and technology usually improved people’s living conditions
    — 75% said that science helped them to understand things around them
    — 67% said that they enjoyed acquiring new knowledge in science
    etc. etc.


  27. Astrosmurfon 27 Apr 2010 at 3:52 am

    I find the cultural differences interesting. In college I studied physics and engineering. This was in Sweden (my home country). If I got asked about what I studied when at a party or something and I answered truthfully that would make people say something “oh , that is difficult isn’t it, lots of math…” end of conversation. Later when I studied for a while in China, there were alot of South Korean girls in my class and also in the same dorm building. Their reaction was quite the opposite. “Wow! an engineer!…”

  28. bachfiendon 27 Apr 2010 at 4:16 am

    I was wondering … The list of attributes of nerd behaviour sound similar to that of Asperger’s syndrome. Could some nerds actually be genetically predisposed as part of the autism spectrum?

  29. Shelleyon 27 Apr 2010 at 7:15 am


    I’ve always wondered about that myself and often refer to the extremely bright, but socially inept as ‘Asperger-ish.’

    ‘Nerds’ are not a homogeneous group — so perhaps someone might want to offer a definition of what really makes a nerd a nerd.

    Is the defining feature of nerdiness high intelligence? Obscure and highly focused interests? Social awkwardness? Ordinary looks?

    As an aside, attractiveness gives people a social advantage — so if you’re a extremely bright and beautiful, you’re probably not socially awkward since everyone from your teacher to your mother will have treated you differently from the time you were a baby. Is that really a nerd?

  30. SteveAon 27 Apr 2010 at 7:21 am

    I’m reminded of a story I heard about Clark Gable when he joined the US Army Air Force in WWII. While he was training as an officer he’d spend the evenings drinking and carousing with the guys, then, when everybody else in his dorm was asleep, he’d sneak into the bathroom, lock himself in a cubicle and hit the books till dawn. He didn’t graduate at the top of his class (more in the top quarter) but he did brilliantly for a man who apparently spent all his off-duty hours in the bar.

  31. John2on 27 Apr 2010 at 7:57 am

    It took me a few years after college to understand that intelligence alone is just not enough to make it to the top in the world of employment, and that effort is needed too. I found it unfair that less able people who worked harder advanced more rapidly, which is hopelessly naive, but seemingly still widespread.

    I still have to explain to staff that I am paying them for results, and that I don’t much care for mental firepower if it is not actually put to use.

    I’d say that down the years my appreciation of a good work ethic has more and more occluded my desire to hire the intellectual elite. For one thing, the guy that has excelled without trying in school can spend years, as I did, cruising in the office before it clicks that potential counts for little when it’s not being fulfilled.

  32. ccbowerson 27 Apr 2010 at 9:31 am

    To get back to the point I partially made about our culture valuing talent over hard work… this is part of the reason why being a nerd is viewed in a negative light. Nerds have interests in things that are intellectually stimulating, and it takes effort to have interests like these. There is a perception that the person is “trying too hard” and this is viewed as a strange and elitist characteristic. Another component to this is a feeling of inferiority by the nonnerd, so in order to reconcile this feeling the person views the nerd as lacking in other ways (socially or aesthetically if that appies) in order to feel better about themselves.

    “Or are we just relying on our own anecdotal experiences as nerds growing up?”

    I think that for the most part it is anectodal, but in this case perception is reality (since we are talking about perception). This is widespread in our media, and does not appear to be unique to our time and culture. The fact that you are the only one who even questioned the idea says something about its prevalence.

    It is a good question though, because attitudes towards intellectual interests varies with the setting (prep school and post graduate schools versus many high schools). Also the age of the people involved has a role, and I think nerds do better as they get older as long as they have or develop the social skills necessary to do well in life.

  33. kikyoon 27 Apr 2010 at 1:02 pm

    I don’t think it’s necessarily about intelligence or interest in science and math, but has to do with a lack of social skills combined with a tunnel vision when it comes to interests.

    People who are unpopular tend not to be able to read indirect social signals so they may not notice when they are boring someone or making someone uncomfortable. They also tend to have narrow areas of interest and have a hard time holding a conversation about things not within those areas.

    I’ve known tons of people who could be classified as “nerds” based on their academic success and fields of interest, but are not unpopular because they have social skills and a well-rounded body of interests including things like sports, music, pop culture, etc. so that they can interact with people who have different interests.

    Science is fantastic, but not everyone HAS to be interested in it, just like not everyone has to be interested in art, sports, cooking, or politics. If you go around acting like everyone should be just as fascinated by a subject as you are, then people who aren’t are going to shy away from you. I’ve seen this not only with “nerds,” but with anyone who tunnels on certain subjects and has a lack of intuition when it comes to reading other people’s reaction to their behavior.

  34. superdaveon 27 Apr 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Kikyo, that was the exact point i was trying to make with my guitar example.

  35. theshortearedowlon 27 Apr 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I think there is another aspect to smart = unpopular.

    Kids: Wow, the Monkees/Adam Ant/Britney Spears/The Jonas Brothers are really cool!

    Smart kid: Really? Actually, I think he/she/they are just recycled manufactured pop product.

    Kids: Dude/Girl, you are so uncool!

    Smart kid: Ok, so we have different musical tastes. I guess we can agree to disagree.

    Kids: No, you’re lame. I can’t be seen with someone lame.

    Smart kid: You’re really saying we can’t be friends because I don’t like this ridiculous popstar?

    Kids: I don’t understand what you just said, so later!

  36. ccbowerson 27 Apr 2010 at 8:26 pm


    Of course I agree that what you describe occasionally comes into play, but I think having narrow interests is a distinct phenomenon. There is a reflex anti-intellectualism in segments of our society that is separate from the social skills and narrow interest problem. Are intelligent people less likely to have good social skills? I don’t see why that would be true. Perhaps in your scenario the non-nerd is the one with the problem by not having the interests.

    In addition, having narrow interests is more tolerated and even celebrated among athletes (Michael Phelps or any Olympic athlete has to have an extremely narrow interest for example).
    On the other hand, nerds don’t necessarily have narrow interests at all. In fact I assume that most of the people reading this blog are nerds, and probably have a wide range of interests. Actually I would like to see a study on intelligence and interests. I would put my money on more intelligent people having more varied interest than less intelligent people. If that is true then that would punch a big whole in the stereotype.

  37. kikyoon 28 Apr 2010 at 3:09 am

    Oh, I wasn’t saying that intelligent people have narrow interests. Far from it. What my point was is that I don’t think intelligence is a defining factor in whether you are popular or unpopular and that it has more to do overall with social skills.

    All I have is my personal experience, but I’ve never known anyone who was disliked merely because they were intelligent or enjoyed academic subjects. The only people I’ve known who were disliked by many people in a social group were usually disliked for anti-social personality traits. For example, in the example dialogue given above, smartkid may perceive themselves as merely being truthful and perceptive, but they are also being rude and dismissive.

    People generally don’t like it when you casually smack down something they are enthusiastic about. Compare with this:

    Kids: Wow, the Monkees/Adam Ant/Britney Spears/The Jonas Brothers are really cool!

    Smarterkid: It’s not really my taste in music, but they sure are popular. I heard they even have a movie coming out. I prefer more guitar-oriented music like XXX Band, have you ever listened to them?

    Smarterkid is no less intelligent than smart kid but he also knows how to have a conversation without insulting other people and their tastes. Hint: the type of music you like isn’t actually a measure of your intelligence!

  38. Shelleyon 28 Apr 2010 at 6:33 am

    “disliked for anti-social personality traits”

    Just to be clear kikyo, there is a significant difference between socially awkward and anti-social (read: psychopathy). Many nerds seem to fall into the former category and a small percentage in the later. (There’s no reason to believe that nerds are more likely to have anti-social characteristics than those in the general population).

  39. ccbowerson 28 Apr 2010 at 8:28 am

    I guess we havent properly defined nerd. If lacking in some social skills is a requirement for being a nerd, then I agree to some extent. I do not define nerd that way… the only requirement being an interest in academic or intellectually stimulating topics and a desire to learn about those things.

    I know these conversations are difficult because we are talking about vague concepts and not real people. I disagree with the notion that the only or main reason why “nerds” as a category are disliked is/are because of a lack of social skills. That may apply to individuals, but as a group they are looked down upon. Athletes or people interested in fashion may also be elitists or dismissive (and have terrible social skills) but they are not necessarily looked down upon for this reason.

    I think what underlies all of this is the bias towards individual talents (attractiveness or physical attributes) versus hard work and a degree of anti intellectualism. The social skills thing plays a role in the stereotype and in individual situations, but that should cut across groups, all else being equal.

  40. Fifion 28 Apr 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Having a high IQ also doesn’t mean you have a low EQ – that’s a stereotype. Just as the dumb jock stereotype is just as much a stereotype as the nerd one is – neither actually take into account that people can be more than one thing. Sports nerds are just as nerdy in their own way as science nerds or literature nerds (though the outsiders into arts are more often labeled freaks than nerds…though there are drama nerds). If you want to be really good at any sport and compete, it means all your out of school time goes into training (that was one reason I gave up competitive swimming when I hit adolescence).

    Highschool and adolescence are all about trying on different identities and figuring out who you are out in the world, as well as what they want to do. I’d say bad science and math teachers, and the sexism still present around math and science, do more to turn kids off science than any ‘nerd’ stigma (that was certainly at least partly the case for me, though there were other contributing factors). If you want to make science cool, make it about the ladies 🙂 Seriously. It’s not so much about attracting kids to science and tech – though obviously interesting classes and well equipped classrooms help – it’s about not turning them off in the first place.

    Also, critical thinking skills can be taught just as easily in the arts, they’re in no way just a science thing.

    Being intelligent doesn’t automatically make one considered a nerd and the nerd stereotype seems to be mainly inspired by Aspies and reflect the kinds of traits you see in with high functioning autism/Asperger’s (difficulty reading social cues, unathletic/uncoordinated, pedantic/memory based intelligence instead of fluid intelligence, etc). We just don’t call the smart kids who aren’t Aspies nerds and they’re no less likely to be popular than other kids. Smart kids can be insiders or outsiders, popular or unpopular, depending on their social skills. Being an Aspie will obviously make you a social outsider, being too different in any way in high school will make you into one of the freaks or geeks unless you’re exceptionally socially nimble or good looking.

    I’d say the first place to start is to stop perpetuating stereotypes within science itself…you know, stuff like girls aren’t good at math.

  41. Fifion 28 Apr 2010 at 12:23 pm

    All in all, I think a lot of people just don’t like it when someone is obviously more intelligent/quicker than them..it makes them feel stupid by comparison and people love to compare. Especially in high school, it’s all about comparing! And, this becomes even more pronounced if you’re a girl or woman. A lot of guys, even intelligent ones, get freaked out if you’re more intelligent than them. It seems to be a power/control/dominance issue. Of course, there are also guys who celebrate and admire – and want to date – women who are smarter than them. (Most guys are okay with “as smart as” but some guys get into a tedious competition regarding intelligence – particularly if their main source of self esteem is considering themselves smarter than everyone else!)

  42. luvtheheavenon 29 Apr 2010 at 12:12 am

    It hasn’t been very long since I’ve been in high school. When I was in my public high school, the cheerleaders weren’t popular. They were stupid and mean (okay maybe I’m a bit biased lol). But seriously they weren’t pretty and they weren’t respected or popular.

    I remember being in 4th or 5th grade and we had elections for the whole grade for who is going to be president and vice president of the student government. And the 2 kids (a boy and a girl) that I knew were going to win were the ones everyone had heard of, they were “popular”. And I liked them too, they were really nice, sweet, SMART people. REALLY smart. Not nerds, per say, more like PERFECT well-rounded overachievers. They both were always getting the best grades in every class and were good at every subject but were also on sports teams and stuff like that. They stayed with me through high school (which helps me remember them now I’m sure) – the boy was in my preschool class even, lol. I remember he and I were the only people in my Kindergarten class who would always volunteer to read out loud to the rest of the class. We were smart. The girl was so smart that she’d always be taking math a grade ahead of the rest of us. These smart kids were popular.

    I’m not sure who the “nerds” were at the school. Travis, who I had a crush on, probably would be considered one – our 7th grade Ancient History Social Studies teacher made fun of him for bringing his own atlas to class one time. He was named Valedictorian at the end of high school and was a fan of WoW and was in chorus through the end of high school which is pretty uncool for a guy and stuff like that. He got a perfect score (800) on his World History SAT Subject Test. He was the guy who brought extra batteries for his calculator when going to the SATs. Only nerds do that, right? But he was kinda popular within a subgroup of people from the honors/AP classes. Especially amongst those girls (like me). He had only 1 real close guy friend, Geoffrey… who was probably more of a nerd than Travis. Geoffrey was smart… especially at math. He had that classic horrible nerd handwriting. Geoffrey was a lot more socially awkward than Travis… I don’t think Geoffrey had any friends other than Travis. But the label “nerd” never really crossed my mind for either of these guys. For anyone at the school really.

    What is a nerd? Someone who is socially awkward? Someone who is both smart AND socially awkward? Just anyone who is smart? Does the smartness have to be math/science related?

    My brother is 2 years younger than me (I’m 20 and a sophomore at Boston University). So he’s deciding what college to go to right now. And he wants to be a math major. Does that AUTOMATICALLY make him a nerd? What about when you find out he spends almost all of his time at play and musical rehearsals, or in band and chorus, or even just busking for some extra cash with his violin virtuoso best friend who sometimes composes music professionally even though he’s only 17? My brother sings, dances, acts, plays guitar & flute. My brother has a bunch of friends, he’s not that socially awkward. He only went to high school with me for one year (long story) but even though I was the 11th grader and he was the 9th grader, people would see me/hear my name and say “Hey, are you Peter’s sister?” – yes, that’s how I was known, as the sister of my popular little brother.

    I just don’t know who were the nerds at my school and who were the popular people. I guess the people who were in the running for homecoming court and superlatives counted as the truly popular people – they were genuinely popular because the most people voted for them when they had the choice of naming anyone in the grade. Those people were across the board though, they weren’t just the athletes or just the pretty people. They weren’t all stupid, not all the same clique/group that everyone wanted to be a part of, no, nothing like that. They were generally nice people, people that are the opposite of who the popular girls & boys on shows like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” or “Glee” show them to be. On those shows, popular kids are insanely rude, mean, bitchy, and I don’t see how they’d actually be “popular”. Popular people are people who everyone *likes*, right?

    And speaking of shows like Jimmy Neutron (lol I loved that show), what do you think about a show like Gilmore Girls, or even Kyle XY, where the main character is really smart (intrinsically again, it’s all natural talent)? They’re not “nerds” really, and Rory on Gilmore Girls did put in quite a bit of effort, that was sort of shown, especially during her high school years…

    Anyway… interesting blog post and comments. This was my first time coming to this blog but I’ll probably check it out more often if I can. 😀

  43. Kultakutrion 02 May 2010 at 10:36 am

    I guess that the nerds may be unpopular because they just live in another world. At least a certain part of them.
    I was constantly failing to understand the fuss about dating – for me, there was so much stuff more interesting than trying to find a way how to make Joe Smith lick my larynx…. so quite often, I had nothing to talk about with the other kids.
    But indeed, I wasn’t trying too hard to be popular:D

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