Revenge of the Nerds: Being Popular in High School Doesn't Make You Rich, After All

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Mathletes, goth freaks, drama nerds: you've been vindicated. 

Last year, awkward teens everywhere got a rather depressing dose of news when new research suggested that kids who were popular in high school also tended to end up richer than their classmates later in life. "Economics Says Revenge of the Nerds Is a Lie," declared our friends at The Atlantic Wire. "Sorry nerds: popular kids earn more in the long run," mocked Wonkblog

As a registered high school nerd -- and I used to compete in both chess and Magic the Gathering™ tournaments, meaning I'm actually registered somewhere -- this study naturally bugged the hell out of me. So I couldn't help but feel a little glee upon discovering that Jason Fletcher, a professor at Yale's School of Public Health who has studied the way teenage depression and ADHD impact future earnings, had released a draft paper this week suggesting that, no, being well-liked in 12th grade does not in fact make you wealthier in middle age.

There were already a few reasons to take last year's study with a grain of salt. To begin, the paper used data on men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. During a telephone interview in 1975, the subjects were asked to name their three best male friends from senior year. So we're talking about a paper that hinged on the quarter-century-old recollections of middle-aged, mostly white guys who grew up in the Eisenhower era.

But hey, good studies that track their subjects over decades are hard to come by, and academics work with the data they have. The research team counted up how many times each of their Wisconsin men was "nominated" as somebody's best bud, then looked at their pay decades later. And, as noted, the popular kids tended to make out best. Each nomination was worth roughly a 2 percent earnings increase 35 years on, equivalent to nearly half the boost that comes from finishing an extra year of school. "We estimate that moving from the 20th to 80th percentile of the high-school popularity distribution yields a 10 percent wage premium nearly 40 years later," the paper noted. In the end, the authors suggested that the social skills required to make a friends at age 18 might simply have been useful in the adult workplace. Not inconceivable, but certainly discouraging for those who had trouble finding a lunch table. 

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Enter Fletcher. Instead of looking at Silent Generation men from the Midwest, he pulled data from a 13-year study that began tracking thousands of male and female adolescents from across the country in 1994. The survey asked students to name up to ten friends instead of three, which gave a somewhat more complete set of data to work with. 

It turned out there were similarities between the findings. Just like the Wisconsin study, each friendship nomination translated into 2 percent higher wages come age 30. But here was the big difference: the new data set not only allowed Fletcher to compare the effects of popularity between peers over time, but also between thousands of siblings. Social scientists like to compare siblings when possible, because by tracking people from the exact same family background, it lets them to try figure out what other factors might be influencing their life trajectories. And in this case, it led to an interesting result. Even if one sibling was better liked at school, they weren't any more likely to out-earn their brother or sister. The impact of popularity on future pay simply vanished. 

Fletcher argued that this was a sign that the real driving force behind income among the study's subjects was probably family background, not your ability to make friends as an adolescent. 

Now a few quick but crucial notes about both these studies. Headlines aside, neither of them is actually measuring popularity in the Mean Girls sense of the word. Rather, they're really measuring if students are well liked, whether they're the most popular girl on the cheerleading squad, the starting quarterback, or the nicest geek on model U.N. Moreover, the papers don't appear completely incompatible: the Wisconsin, study, for instance found "a positive association between a warm early family environment" and popularity in high school. So a caring family translated into friends at school which translated into a payday at work. That seems at least somewhat in keeping with Fletcher's new paper, which simply does more to control for the effects of how students were raised. 

But in any event, it seems there's hope, if not revenge, for us nerds yet.

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.


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