Nerds vs Popular Kids: Who Wins in Adulthood?

Like it or hate it, school has a social pecking
order for most people. From grade school to high school, students
form social groups or cliques, and some are more popular than others. While many students are lost somewhere in
the middle in terms of popularity, the students at the top and at the bottom stand out the
most. There are the high status popular kids who
are often seen as the ideal everyone else strives for, and then there are the social
misfits at the bottom who are often shunned lest their undesirable attributes rub off
on anyone else above them. Nerds are usually lumped together with the
others in this bottom group. Outside of school, popular kids and nerds
have caught the attention of Hollywood, resulting in a steady stream of movies and TV shows
about these opposing social groups. While these depictions of popular kids and
nerds have entertained us over the years, how accurate are they? And what happens to popular kids and nerds
after they get out of school? We will try to answer these questions in this
episode of The Infographics Show, “Popular Kids vs. Nerds.” Both popular kids and nerds are on the giving
and receiving end of bullying. In teenage movies such as Pretty in Pink,
Clueless, and Mean Girls, popular kids are often portrayed as bullies. Research indicates that this movie image is
fairly accurate. A study conducted by sociologist Bob Faris
and his co-author Diane Felmlee reveals that “popular kids – except those at the absolute
top of the social ladder – are most likely to act aggressively toward other kids.” This aggression comes in the form of “normative
targeting” or bullying kids “who break social norms” such as nerds, but it also
emerges in another surprising form. Contrary to popular belief, not all popular
kids are safe from bullying. Some popular kids will pick on other popular
kids whose popularity is growing. These aggressive kids engage in what Faris
and his colleagues call “’instrumental targeting’” or the use of bullying “as
an instrument or tool to gain social status.” In other words, they are acting out the age-old
story of building themselves up by tearing others down. Another surprising finding of the study is
the reaction of the popular kids who were bullied by one of their peers. According to Faris and Felmlee’s study,
“any given bullying incident . . . hurts more, emotionally, for a popular kid than
an unpopular one.” These popular kids feel more anxiety than
unpopular kids because they think that they have more to lose. It unnerves them that a social competitor
could undo all of the hard work they put in to increase their social status. The only kids who seem to be safe from bullying
are those at the absolute top of the social hierarchy because as Faris states, “no one
is trying to topple them from their perches.” The popular mass media image of nerds as victims
of bullying is also fairly realistic. We could not find studies that focused specifically
on “nerd-only” bullying, but we did notice that some characteristics of nerds put them
at greater risk for being bullied according to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a nerd
as “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted
to intellectual or academic pursuits.” These characteristics could easily lead to
a nerd being “perceived as different from their peers” and being “less popular than
others,” which are two of the risk factors for bullying listed on However, some nerds may also meet a third
risk factor on’s list: “Do not get along well with others, seen
as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention.” There are anecdotal reports of encounters
with “’angry nerds’” and “jerk nerds” as a few Reddit users call them. Unlike the likeable but helpless nerds frequently
seen on television and in the movies, these nerds annoy people with their “condescending”
behavior and “intellectual superiority.” And then there are nerds who reverse roles
and become bullies themselves. A computer expert named Rob Collie wrote a
blog post criticizing “Nerd Bullies.” He calls them traitors because they try to
compensate for their “historically-instilled feelings of inferiority” by passing the
pain and abuse they suffered on to other nerds: “Nerd Bullies suffered at the hands of the
mob, and now they lead mobs (of other former sufferers!) against victims in their own communities.” However, he describes seeing Nerd Bullies
at work in the online gaming and tech communities. We could not find any studies showing that
nerd bullies are a problem within schools as well. Moving past the bullying and the somewhat
accurate but incomplete view of popular kids and nerds in movies and on television, we
find that their lives after high school are markedly different. Studies following popular kids into adulthood
revealed mixed outcomes for them. A 2013 article cites the
Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which tracked the “social characteristics” and “career
achievements” of students “who graduated from a Wisconsin high school in 1957.” This study showed that “popular students
earned a higher income in the long run compared to those who were less popular.” However, a follow-up study by Yale professor
Jason Fletcher called into question the findings of the original Wisconsin study. It included additional data from siblings
attending the same school that showed the “impact of popularity on future pay simply
vanished.” A University of Virginia study tracking young
people from age 13 to age 23 also painted a less rosy picture for popular kids. According to this study, “cool kids were
more likely to have bigger troubles later in life.” These problems included drug and alcohol use
as well as criminal activity. The study found that “as young adults, they
were using 40% more drugs and alcohol than the ‘not so cool’ kids and were 22% more
likely to be running into troubles with the law.” These things done to impress others hurt the
popular kids in the long run. One of the researchers of the study, Joseph
Allen, says that “teens trying so hard to be cool early in adolescence find the rewards
of popularity in the short term, but their approach ultimately leads to a ‘dead end.’” The end result is what Allen calls the “‘high
school reunion effect’”: “You see the person who was cool … did exciting
things that were intimidating and seemed glamorous at the time and then five or 10 years later,
they are working in a menial job and have poor relationships and such . . . ”
In contrast, nerds often fare better than popular kids after they leave high school. The Daily Mail cites the same University of
Virginia study mentioned earlier. While the cool kids struggled as they grew
older, the study found that “those who are less popular as teenagers end up doing better
in life than their ‘cooler’ peers.” Allen and the other researchers of this study
also “discovered the ones who were considered ‘geeks’ went on to outperform the others
by the time they reached early adulthood.” In addition, Alexandra Robbins, author of
The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth, attributes some of the nerds’ success to what she calls
the Quirk Theory: “the traits which made the nerd alienated in school (unique personalities,
passions and ideas) can end up being admired or valued traits in adulthood.” She argues that “being exceptional,” developing
“coping strategies and independence,” and being “able to deal positively with
stressful social situations” are some of the useful and valuable skills nerds learn
while in school and later carry over into the workplace and beyond. What are your experiences with popular kids
and nerds? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video
called What Makes Popular Kids Popular! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!