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Why Nerds Are Unpopular - Open Knowledge — LiveJournal

Feb. 14th, 2003

12:32 am - Why Nerds Are Unpopular

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http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

[Note: Paul Graham is the author of this essay. Go to his site--has several other excellent essays, especially if you're interested in LISP.]

Why Nerds are Unpopular

by Paul Graham

February 2003

When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. Our table was populated by complete nerds, cases of delayed pubescence, and recent immigrants from China. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.

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.

Comments:

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From:visgoth
Date:February 13th, 2003 10:12 pm (UTC)

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Great link. Thanks.
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From:klarfax
Date:February 13th, 2003 10:44 pm (UTC)
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I've only read the first couple sections of this so far, but I'm not buying the argument. I don't think it's that nerds don't want to be popular, I think that instead there's some other factor associated with intelligence that makes them unpopular. I think there has to be some effect that higher intelligence has on social skills which causes others to react differently to people of high intelligence. I agree that it's not envy, I think it's more subtle than that--there's must be some correlation between intelligence and certain seemingly unrelated ways a person acts I'd say.
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From:zapevaj
Date:February 13th, 2003 11:09 pm (UTC)
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Keep reading; I think it's a great article.

As for your problem with his thesis- I think he's being a little unspecific, but it's true enough. I think the extra factor is that something that makes people inquisitive, analytical, critical, and dissatisfied with a situation that seems to be pointless or stupid. For instance, I knew plenty of kids in high school who were part of "the system" and realized that there was something wrong with it, but never realized exactly what it was, what its causes were, or why they should opt out. And I knew many nerds who had figured out how the system worked and thought that it was repulsive and wanted nothing to do with it- they just wished that they didn't have to be the target of the system's behavioral offal.
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From:klarfax
Date:February 13th, 2003 10:58 pm (UTC)
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The other thing that's different about the real world is that it's much larger. In a large enough pool, even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass if they clump together. Out in the real world, nerds collect in certain places and form their own societies where intelligence is the most important thing.

Where are these places anyway?
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From:visgoth
Date:February 13th, 2003 11:07 pm (UTC)
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You are in one of those places right now. There's lots of idiots on LJ, but I bet if you look at your friends list, it probably has a good population of bright people.
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From:fishsupreme
Date:February 13th, 2003 11:23 pm (UTC)
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This is brilliant; it hits on a lot of things that I "almost knew" but might never have been able to put into words.

I can't help but think that some sort of synthesis between the insights in here and John Taylor Gatto's insights about the problems of modern schooling could lead to some interesting ideas.
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From:rillifane
Date:February 13th, 2003 11:23 pm (UTC)
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Its rather a long post so I'll not comment on everything at once.

I think that it is fundamentally incorrect to state that nerds are the smart kids and that the popular kids are not.

Kids can be both popular and smart.

My daughter is an example of this. She excelled in school. She has a genius level IQ. She spoke three languages at age 10. She was reading Proust in the original French in 6th grade. She was head of several school organizations and elected to student government. Boys fell at her feet. She starred in all the school theatrical productions. She was a cheerleader. She was phenomenally popular.

Nor was she alone. Her circle of close friends were all both scholarly and popular. I do not believe that this is an isolated phenomena.

Perhaps we create the image of the smart kid who is therefore unpopular because it fits some sense of justice. Or maybe its just that people who write TV and movie scripts were unhappy and unpopular kids and project their own assumed intellectual superiority onto their creations.





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From:fishsupreme
Date:February 13th, 2003 11:59 pm (UTC)
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The popular kids and the smart kids are usually not the same group, but this isn't to say there isn't some overlap. My high school certainly had some people who managed to be both, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Also, high school is far better in this regard than middle school -- the author of the article is right, this mentality is most pervasive during the 11-14-year-old middle-school period. By high school, there often isn't really a single "popular crowd" -- instead, there are a variety of groups of friends, and people tend to settle into one or two of these. Middle school, on the other hand, tends to have a single "popular crowd"... probably because of the total lack of extracurricular activities aside from sports and cheerleading -- activities with limited appeal (some people really like them, but they hold no interest whatsoever for others).
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From:mindwalker
Date:February 14th, 2003 01:15 am (UTC)
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Very interesting article. I especially found the connection between the nerds and the freaks interesting, because I've always been kind of on the fringes of both of these groups. If you took all of my real-life friends (and probably most of the online ones as well) they'd probably fall into at least one of these two groups.

My school experience was probably not quite so bad as the author's, but I still think of it as kind of like a prison, though one that became somewhat more tolerable over the years. I went to the same school from K-12. It was a small private school, averaging around 45 students in each grade. Most of the "popular" crowd were there during the K-5 grades, but eventually left the school during the 6-8 grades, leaving behind mostly an entire class of nerds. This departure, plus my infamous NASA episode in 1984 eventually led to my becoming accepted by the new "popular" crowd that emerged in grades 9-12. I never really felt like I fit into any particular group, nerds or popular folks, but always kind of drifted among the various social circles in school. It was only when I went to college that I really started to feel like a real nerd/freak again (then again never sure which group).

Now, in adult life, it pretty much doesn't make much of a difference whether I'm a nerd or not. People aren't really aware of it until you get into small groups, and usually these are self-selected to include only nerd/freak types. The nice thing is that nerds can make a good amount of money in the IT and other fields, just as the former popular folks make money as lawyers and congressmen (I'm generalizing a bit here - no offense intended to any nerds who happen to have become lawyers). A few years ago during the internet boom, it almost felt like the "revenge of the nerds" was taking place, but alas, it didn't quite pan out for me personally (as I'm sure is the case with a lot of other nerds).

...

Getting back to another point addressed in the article, I think it's pretty clear that specialization has made it harder for teens to spend their time doing productive things. Specialization also makes it harder for the would-be Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci to come into existence. I find that kind of depressing, and I might end up making a detailed post about that topic if I ever get around to it. But specialization is the natural evolution of capitalism and the division of labor, and its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.

I also believe that specialization is not the only reason it's hard for teens to do something productive. Minimum wage laws and child labor laws make it very difficult (i.e. economically prohibitive) for anyone to hire unskilled labor. An entrepreneur can't hire an apprentice at $5.50 an hour if he can only afford to pay $2.00 an hour to teach them. Not being able to hire a 13-year-old also means that 13-year-old will still need to be locked up in a school rather than doing something potentially productive, such as learning how to service automobiles or filing documents. And, compulsory attendance laws - even for those who are uninterested in an education and would be better off learning a trade - also contribute to the problem. Undoing these three "progressive" laws could have a positive effect on both the prisoners kids inside the school system, who would now be there only because they want to, and the ones who choose another path, such as going to work for the family business or becoming the apprentice of an entrepreneur. This wouldn't solve all of the problems that kids face these days, but I think it would be a good start.






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From:rinku
Date:February 14th, 2003 02:53 am (UTC)

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excellent article, best article i've read all year actually. i even quoted parts of it in my lj. thanks-thanks.
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From:afb
Date:February 14th, 2003 03:34 am (UTC)
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Wow. This was absolutely brilliant, and a lot of it really did describe my years in school. My favorite bit? The idea that part of what drives teenagers mad is their inability to do anything productive with a visible outcome. That's an outstanding observation. I'm not planning on having kids, but if I do, this is the sort of thing I'd want to help them understand when they're actually kids, rather than when they're 24. :)
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From:jozafiend
Date:February 14th, 2003 06:32 am (UTC)

Another theory

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cool article, for sure. There is another theory as to why smart people are smart, jocks jocks, etc.

Even if nerds cared as much as other kids about popularity, being popular would be more work for them. The popular kids learned to be popular, and to want to be popular, the same way the nerds learned to be smart, and to want to be smart: from their parents. While the nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please.

They mention the nurture part of the debate, but not nature, and their explanation doesn't really explain the kids in the middle. Another theory is that when kids who are thought to be smart learn something new, they receive a larger does of endorphines; that "a-ha!" principle actually gives them a rush that they want to repeat. Same with the jocks, but not in learning, but in perfecting a particular move on the field, or getting recognition for their performance. What each kid specializes in, he does because of the endorphines he gets when doing that activity.

I've never heard of a study mentioning this, but it's a pet theory of my husband, which has grown on me over the years.
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From:shribble
Date:February 14th, 2003 02:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Another theory

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I'm glad you brought up the "a ha!" theory. We often fail to realize how our current/past choices biologically prepare us to make similar choices in the future.

I for one was oblivious to "social hierarchies" which provided me with a certain amount of intra-group mobility. I didn't know who the "popular" kids were so I sure as hell didn't know I wasn't supposed to interact with them. Indeed, I can't remember being bullied or persecuted by my fellow students (although it could well have happened and I'd never have known). I remember more the utter sense of betrayal I felt towards my "teachers". I remember sitting in our "gifted" math class in 4th grade and being asked to write down a list of suggested topics. If memory serves, I wrote down astrophysics. When our teacher commented on our suggestions, she fumbled over mine and said "oh, you'll learn that later". I was so angry. Here I was, stuck in a room for 8 hours a day learning nothing. Why should I have to wait until I got home to actually learn? I can't count the number of times I was told to "wait" by teachers or told condescendingly that it wouldn't hurt me to pay attention while she taught a subject matter I'd taught myself years ago. Or, Christ, I remember making a comment about something from "A Tale of Two Cities", the teacher looked at me like I was insane and insisted that the event I spoke of hadn't occured in the book. Turns out we we're reading a abridged version of the novel. Then, of course, there were the annoying parent teacher conferences initiated (not because I wasn't shit kicking the course work) but because I was "too shy". I switched schools between 7th and 8th grade and was made to retake two classes I'd taken the previous year all because they were afraid that taking classes with 9th graders would socially scar me. I was too socially oblivious to be scarred by my peers. But I was certainly aware enough to know that I was a pawn in a system and that my needs and desires were of little matter.
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From:darius
Date:February 14th, 2003 07:00 am (UTC)
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Good article. There's considerable overlap with Grace Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook and John Holt's Instead of Education. Also some with The Nurture Assumption (though it contradicts Graham on family being all-important before 11).

I'm not convinced that apprenticeship has become impractical; Llewellyn's book has counterexamples, and you can point to things like minimum wage laws for other reasons it's hard to arrange now.

It's not clear even if we could strengthen families it'd be a net win; Fukuyama's Trust goes into problems that causes in southern Italy. (Problems from weaker mid-level institutions, basically.)
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From:zachstroum
Date:February 14th, 2003 04:18 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting article. The comments about family and the current state of our school system were particularly good.
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