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.

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