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Why Are Nerds Unpopular?

by Steven Novella, Apr 26 2010

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.

47 Responses to “Why Are Nerds Unpopular?”

  1. Lukas says:

    I always found the idea that nerds are unpopular kind of confusing. I’m from Europe, and I’ve never personally felt that nerds were unpopular in our schools. American TV series were the first time I’ve seen this meme, and I’ve generally assumed that this had little to do with reality even in American schools – similar to how in movies, the bad guys often ugly, I simply assumed that the unpopular nerd was another archetype of American pop culture.

    Are nerds really unpopular, or does this idea mainly stem from how they are depicted on TV?

  2. greg says:

    Nerds are unpopular by definition. There are plenty of people who are smart and popular and athletic. The valedictorian of my high school class was a popular female soccer player who went to Harvard.

    Nerds are the people who are smart but to some degree are socially awkward. If you are smart and aren’t socially awkward, then you aren’t a nerd.

  3. Alan says:

    I think the issue in this case is straightforward — “Nerds” (or, more generally, intellectuals) are unpopular because they represent something unpopular within our society as a whole. Who do you see as the heroes within American culture? By a wide margin it is those who you might call the “Warriors” — e.g. those that succeed through one form of “combat” to become rich and powerful. The combat might be sports or business or politics, but in the end it is success and the rewards it brings that matter.

    Now, compare that to the “intellectual” culture, one where it is not per se success that matters, but knowledge and understanding. You show your “nerd” cred by being smart, not necessarily “beating” the other guy. Even when you do knowledge is at best just a means to and end — you note Bill Gates as a famous “nerd”, but he is famous for being rich and powerful. If anything our culture treats his “nerd” status as a disability he had to overcome in order to be successful.

    If you want intellectuals to be valued in our culture then intellectualism itself needs to be valued — knowledge for the sake of understanding and enlightenment (in the secular sense of the term). Intellectual culture is based on the free exchange of ideas, but our culture as a whole is very much obsessed with the reverse. “Free” in this context is seen as a synonym for “stupid” and “failure.” That in turn deglamorizes intellectual pursuits. As a result it gets inevitably dumped into a socially marginalized category such as “nerd.”

    There is nothing wrong with striving for “success”, but it’s not the only value that matters. However, in a culture were success as defined by “fame, fortune, and power” is all that really matters intellectualism has value only as a means to an end. For those for whom knowledge >is< the "end" such as "nerds" they will be inevitably relegated to a lower social status (unless they otherwise possess valued attributes like beauty or wealth).

    • mordaunt0 says:

      Indeed. It’s amusing how even the author of this article can’t escape the logic of materialism when trying to promote intellectualism.

      His example of Bill gates, is only to show that he overcame his nerdishness to acquire great wealth and pretty females.

      The intellectual work itself is just a means of acquisition rather than valued in its own right.

      If you want kids to value science, the work itself must be valued.

      A person who discovers the cure to all cancers must be valued for the accomplishment rather than as the guy who figured out the cure to cancer and was able to monetize it globally for trillions.

      If we cared about intellectuals Salk would be widely celebrated for curing polio and then freely giving the solution away for the betterment of all mankind. Instead the only intellectual we somewhat celebrate is Albert Einstein for giving us a bomb that we can use to crush our enemies and take their stuff

      So yea.. unless we figure what we truly value as a society, this isn’t going to change with such fundamentally broken approaches to solving the issue by casting intellectual achievement as just another viable path on the road to wealth, rather than as the vital engine for human development that it has always been.

      • Jason M says:

        I’m also in agreement with you two. Popularity is and has always been about being the alpha male (for men), and whatever the equivalent is for women (consort of the alpha male?).

        In today’s world, being the alpha male isn’t done through brute force though, but through charisma, wealth acquisition and social connections. Intellectualism for its own sake has no room in this picture. Combined with the fact that many intellectuals are not up to snuff in the former characteristics, and may even be below on average, and you see why the trait isn’t going to be popular.

        I think it’s just the nature of human beings that makes it so, and it’s not really something you can alter. Sure, you might change the broader culture to less anti-intellectual, but you aren’t going to fundamentally change human nature to value intellectualism ahead of the qualities mentioned above.

  4. Rico says:

    In my experience we did have several cliques along lines of interest, but
    never the strong divisions as often seen in the (American) media. The whole
    jock/nerd division was quite a surprise to me, as in our schools, sport is seen
    as just a part of the curriculum, and is taught just a few hours in the week.
    We have no teams, or divisions in which teams compete. So when you are good at
    sport, you do that in your own time, usually in the weekends. So there is no
    jock group identifiable with jerseys and such.

    So the lines between the cliques are a lot vaguer, and people often belong
    to more than one of them.

  5. Kostas says:


    I am also from Europe and I was thinking the exact same thing. I find it shocking that I can comprehend the linked article so well when my personal experience was so different and my knowledge of American pop culture is basically limited to sitcoms and movies plus some stuff i read on the web. I ve always thought all these stereotypes are just some kind of narrative formula used in story telling.That is the building blocks of modern American myths. I think the author of the essay may have also been influenced by pop culture stereotypes. Or he just happened to find himself in a situation that mirrored them accurately. I for one find it hard to believe that this is an accurate depiction of American society as Steve points out in his post (I am referring to the part about the prep school he went to).


    If thats true then the word nerd is being misused here.If to be a nerd is to be socially inept then theres little we can do to change the fact that they re unpopular. To be a nerd is to be unpopular. I dont think thats the issue here.


    Dont be so sure that American culture is so different than others. As I said i am not American so i dont know much about how you do things over there but I know my culture and i can tell you that its always the winner who is popular. Power and fame are universal and thats what people are looking for. You have to be good at something that gives you status, power and basically money in order to be popular (or successful if you re an adult). Smartness isnt something tangible or necessarily useful. Personally i object to the notion of smartness in general as the only thing that actually matters is how well you do in school (or the university or career-wise later) which is not necessarily the same thing as being smart. You said we need to value knowledge for the sake of understanding and enlightenment. I dont believe thats possible but what we can do is value excellence in school and studies as this will actually help you become successful (or powerful if you want).

    Also i completely agree on your comments on Bill Gates.No one values his nerdiness. All they value is the fact hes the richest human on the planet. My whole point exactly.

    • Alan says:

      There have been societies in the past where knowledge for its own sake (although often in the form of “sacred knowledge” e.g. religion) has been on par with the value of success, at times even more valued. So, I don’t think it is impossible. However, it is going to be nearly so until society as a whole moves away from its overriding obsession with “success” as defined by wealth and power to include other values such as knowledge.

      And, I only spoke for American society as that’s the one I know.

      • Kostas says:

        I think I know what you re referring to but still society’s “overriding obsession with “success” as defined by wealth and power” is in part something innate in our species because what makes you popular is whether you re good at doing what you re supposed to do which is basically accruing more rsources than the others as well as maintaining a healthy and broad social network composed of other successful people. In our times “smartness” maybe an efficient way of achieving that so maybe we should try emphasizing that fact. Or simply we should strive towards a world where “smart” people are more successful than others. If we keep paying billions to watch football games and movies then you just make it easier for people with superior physical abilities and charisma and looks to become powerful. Can you blame kids if they want to become like them? Of course not. Hell if i was good looking and charismatic maybe i would have gone down that path myself.

        NOTE: I am not saying its necessarily wrong to value physical prowess and charismatic personality.In the end its not very easy to prove that intellectual capacity is somehow “transcendently” and objectively “better” but it seems logical that a world where “smart” people were on the top of the food chain might be a better one, given some other safeguards like a healthy functioning democracy, people thinking for themselves etc

  6. Sajanas says:

    Bulling and anti-intellectualism are perhaps two different problems. Both affect the bookish, weaker people, and I think, society as a whole.

    Having 2 years in a normal high school, and 2 years in a magnet school with a strong focus on Science and Math, it was amazing to see the difference between the two cultures. While I was not exactly an outcast nerd, I never really felt the same connection to the other students at the non-magnet school. There were some other more nerdy guys I hung out with, but it was nothing compared to my second school, where there were attractive and athletic people, but the cliches they formed were never really dominant to the rest of us. I think everyone there respected intellectual achievement too, regardless of what the rest of your interests gravitated too. In normal school, very few students were ever interested in school, and I think a lot of students thought that since I knew more than them, it meant that I looked down. Anger at not being good at a subject gets directed towards the know-it-alls that have it so easy. When everyone is on more of a even keel, that vanishes a bit… which is why I’ve always been a big supporter of AP, IB, and other gifted programs.

    I think that the jocks vs nerds problem has less to do with intellectual pursuits and all to do with the dominion of the physically powerful. In high school you really start to see the dividends from an athletic, active life style, and the actual school environment is not particularly well monitored. I was bullied a little bit, mostly in PE class, but it was always by these guys who thought that their strength gave them license to pick on anyone weaker than them, whether smarter or not. How many of the student athletes were ever bullied? Most of the bullies and jerks I new in high school weren’t really popular (in fact, the popular people were almost universally very nice to me, and to everyone else), but they did have the notion that their might made right.

  7. Eric says:

    I think this Venn diagram is useful here:

    Sure we all know a lot of nerds in high-school, but in my experience the very smartest kids are the most popular, and are probably captains on the football team too. If you are smart AND socially inept you are a nerd.

  8. Robo Sapien says:

    And then you have the people like me, metalheads who weren’t particularly intelligent, attractive, athletic or popular. Just don’t say it to our face or you’d end up knocked out behind the cafeteria with a black eye and wallet-chain marks around your neck. Ah, the good ol’ days.

    • Max says:

      You mean there were freaks and geeks. Now that was a good show, “Freaks and Geeks”. And as in every Judd Apatow production, the geek scores with a pretty chick.

  9. Lucian says:

    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… What was interesting about my situation was that as the “popular” guy, I had no problem dipping into other social groups. I was able to discuss common interests with the “nerds.” Lucky them, right?
    I know the term we’re using is nerds, and nerds are automatically assumed to be unpopular. I’ve been called a nerd for overly intellectual comments made since I’ve left high school, 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. Somehow getting a “question everthing around you” mentality instilled in them. I leave it to the schools to give them good critical thinking skills, but…
    Best of luck solving this one.

  10. LovleAnjel says:

    I think the nerd/not-nerd stereotype needs to be dispensed with. It focuses people in the wrong direction, forcing them to label and bin themselves and others. Let’s reframe this not as “how can we make nerds cool?” but “how can we get students excited about science?”

    In my (very limited) experience, bona fide nerds are actually hard to come by. We had no jock/nerd dichotomy in my HS, the captains of the football team and cheerleaders were in all my AP classes, and I was the goth/metalhead who got less of a hassle than the “normal” kids from administration (I could get away with wearing a spiked dog collar and industrial chains while anybody else got pulled into the dean’s office.) The kids who considered themselves “popular” were rich & dumb, and spent as much time bullying each other as they did the rest of us. Being accepted socially was more about whether or not you were an a-hole on a regular basis. Colleges and Universities are so large that there is no real restricted social structure. You can avoid most people if you wish (unless they make a real effort to bother you), so the clique groups tend to be more vaguely defined and have fuzzy borders.

  11. Max says:

    Hasn’t all this evolved from the whole “alpha male” thing, where the dominant baboon is the one with the reddest ass, not the one who figures out how to use a twig.

  12. Max says:

    Geek fashion like using a lot of gadgets, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, playing Wold of Warcraft, “reading” comic books, watching Lost or anime, forming Internet memes on 4chan, and joking about ninjas versus pirates, tells me little about a person’s intelligence and critical thinking skills.
    I never cared for any of that geek fashion, just as I don’t care about soap operas, irrelevant celebrity gossip, and football, but I do care about math, science, critical thinking, and ideas.

  13. SeanG says:

    It strikes me that you would probably find a greater conflict between nerds and jocks where the community as a whole values sports very highly. The sports programs become the most visible expression of a group (jocks) to those outside the group (the rest of the community. At least in my high school the average Joe on the street who didn’t even have kids would have known how the football team was doing. The same guy likely knew nothing about the chess team, forensics, or the school play. In the interest of full disclosure, I was/am a bank geek and a metalhead.

  14. Jonas says:

    You’re not unpopular because you are smart or better than others. The overwhelming most common reason is because you are a git. Some people have a very hard time seeing that in themselves and make up all kinds of reasons why this must not be true. They are generally not the smartest ones.

    • tmac57 says:

      I’ll have to disagree with you on this. Popularity arises from the ability to function well in social groups. In other words, you are well liked because you know how to be liked. But there are many people that have never developed good social skills, who can range from very intelligent nice people (probably shy), to the “gits” that you describe. Some people are just ‘late bloomers’ when it come to fitting in. Often times the situation improves dramatically when the level of maturity around them goes up.

  15. David Anderegg says:

    I wrote a book about the nerd stereotype and I have a few things to say here. Most importantly, if we want to stop the bad effects of anti-intellectual stereotypes, we need to stop using them. In my book, I wanted to put “nerd” in quotation marks every time I used it to emphasize that “nerds” do not exist. (Unfortunately my editor thought it too cumbersome.) The stereotype exists, and there are some people who fit the stereotype. But most do not, just as with any other harmful stereotype. There are some people who fit negative stereotypes of members of vilified ethnic groups, but that doesn’t mean using the stereotype is valid or useful; it just means that once in a while one meets someone who happens to conform to a stereotype.

    As I point out in my book, the nerd stereotype is counterfactual. Intelligence most often co-varies with good physical and mental health and good looks, because they all spring from the same roots: good genes, good pre-natal care and good post-natal care. So kids need to unlearn the evidence of their own eyes when learning this stereotype: learning that nerds are physically unappealing/awkward etc. is a triumph of popular culture over actual evidence (something which should be of concern to skeptics). Very often when I ask kids (I am a developmental psychologist) to describe a nerd they know, they describe someone with a pocket protector! I then ask, “Really? You really know a kid who uses a pocket protector? Not counting TV, I haven’t seen one of those in 20 years!” And usually the kids will look stunned: they realize in that moment that they have been seeing with the eyes of stereotypes, not with their own eyes.

    I’ve had it with “See, even nerds can sometimes be cool!” or “See, even scientists can be cool!” It’s time to stop using stereotypical categories ourselves. I’ve been in a heap of public trouble lately for “advocating censorship” or being an enemy of free speech. But my point is that using stereotypes, even when we use them ironically, is lazy, and complicated thought is the first casualty of such usage.

    David Anderegg, PhD
    author of Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them

  16. bbulkow says:

    Another theory: in a deep and richly textured human-centric social environment, what matters most is convincing people. If you can convince people to give you money, you can found a business. If you can convince the rich doctor to marry you, you don’t have to work. If you can bum a ride off a friend, you don’t have to buy a car.

    Stereotypes? Maybe. But it’s better to be liked than be good — in today’s world.

    Think about “makers”. No single person can make a car. Working enough to enjoy financial security takes decades. That time when you’re making something and need a tool or skill you don’t have yet – you need to call on friends.

    Face it: social smarts are very, very powerful. In a world with humans everywhere, good social skills will take you further than any other skill.

  17. Majority of One says:

    When I read your title question my knee jerk reaction was: the same reason fat girls are unpopular. Nerds, at least at my school, weren’t popular because they didn’t want to be. They carried around their physics books and their protractors and stayed to their unwashed selves. The most popular kid in my high school was a guy who was president of the choir, captain of the basketball team, president of the National Honor Society, and was homecoming king. Did I mention he was very handsome? Being smart didn’t hurt him because he had it all.

    The least popular kids at my high school were the fat girls. They liked to read and draw and pretty much kept to themselves, like the nerds (who were mostly boys with a couple of tom-girls in their midst).

    I agree with the poster that the question should be how do we get everybody more interested in science and math at an earlier age and keep them interested and how do we make enough good paying jobs available to them when they get out of school. And, address the gender equality issue. When I got out of school I truly believed I could accomplish as much as a man and make as much as a man. It has been a war everyday and that makes a lot of girls/women give up before they can truly accomplish anything.

    • Max says:

      My knee jerk reaction was: because nerds are the minority. A dumb jock would be unpopular in a company of smart nerds who’d rather talk about nanorobotics than about getting drunk at a party.
      But forget the nerd label, and ask whether being smart and interested in science and math helps or hurts one’s popularity. Is it cooler to be the captain of the basketball team or the math team?

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I think it is an inescapable paradigm. Some people spend their time learning, others spend it screwing off. I’m in the middle of the road there myself. There will always be people who study and work hard to bring about the technology that enriches the lives of the arrogant people who shit all over them.

  18. Jim says:

    When was this article written, 1985? Have you not heard of nerd cool? Punk rock? The Suicide Girls? These stereotypes may have been true when I was a kid (I’m 40), but now…not from what I see with my own kids. “Nerd” easily slides right into “hipster” these days.

    • Max says:

      I like the last monologue from SLC Punk

      “That was me, a trouble maker, the future. The guy that was one of those guys that my parents so arrogantly saved the world for. So we could fuck it up. We could do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it. That was the final irony, I think. That and well this… Fuck you if you’re already thinking it. I guess when all is said and done I was nothing more than a goddamn trendy ass poser.”

    • david anderegg says:

      Depends on where you live….not all kids (I would argue most kids) are not yet into “nerd cool.” 1. Because not that may places are so hip, and 2. because kids under a certain age can’t understand oxymoron.

  19. MadScientist says:

    In my prep school I don’t recall any jocks vs nerds thing going on (but we definitely had some jocks). For the most part the jocks and nerds got along very well; I think the primary thing about being at that particular school was to get to know as many people as you can and learn not to make overt enemies of anyone. About 98% of the students were people whose families were good to know for business (and political) purposes. It was a real boys club, and being segregated by gender we also enjoyed raiding the henhouse next door.

    • MadScientist says:

      Uh … just pointing out of course that what goes on in a prep school is definitely not necessarily representative of schools in general. Many things are the same, some things are very different – so very very different.

  20. Nichlemn says:

    I went to an all boys’ high school in New Zealand and didn’t notice a jock/nerd divide. Despite considering myself fairly nerdy, I got on fairly well with a number of “jocks” (albeit pretty smart ones). Perhaps the presence of girls motivates jocks to ostracise nerds. Or perhaps I wasn’t really as socially inept as I thought I was, and others would have had worse experiences.

  21. Andrew says:

    “Even cheerleaders will whip out their iPhones to text their friends – using a computer device to communicate? Twenty years ago that was unbelievably nerdy.”

    The goalposts have moved. Once upon a time, driving a car was nerdy. Using a smartphone to text your friends is easy, common, and you don’t need to know anything about how the smartphone works to do it. Therefore, it’s not nerdy.

    Jailbreaking your smartphone so you can run an unsupported OS on it; that’s nerdy.

  22. Frederick says:

    As another commenter has said, there is a big difference between being simply ostracized for being a ‘nerd’ and being outright bullied, tortured, abused, and threatened. I was a nerd in high school, slender, bookish, intelligent and quick. Never sought to be popular, didn’t WANT to be popular. Was perfectly content with my tight circle of intelligent friends. However, I was also routinely abused, tortured, stabbed (one time), urinated on, ridiculed, punched, rolled into a gym mat to be suffocated, you name it. My offense? Having the highest IQ ever tested in my state, and testing at graduate school level for reading and math while I was still in 2nd grade.

    I don’t care about being labeled a nerd — gaining approval from an undifferentiated ego mass of oafish morons was not my goal. Simply being physically safe and permitted to pursue my education is all I ever wanted.

  23. Gerald Guild says:

    It is important to note that trends vary as much across the years within a school as they do across different schools. I think that our HS recollections are a bit prone to confirmation bias as research suggests that most “smart” individuals are also either talented musically, artistically, and perhaps even athletically. Bottom line, as Steven suggests, is that it is the responsibility of the adults in the system to create a culture that celebrates intellectualism and achievement. This is a feature that is too often lacking in today’s schools. Values based leadership is the key. We as a skeptical community can strive for this within our own communities of residence through the ballot box and community action.

  24. rustle says:

    I think ‘popular’ is being confused with notoriety or status. The majority of the kids in my high school who had ‘achieved’ social status weren’t at all popular outside of their clique. With 300+ kids in my graduating class, status was watered down because it was a large enough number to allow a great many people not to give a shit about them or their lives. Sure, people knew who was pretty, who was a stud jock and who had money, but that didn’t mean they liked them or wished to be them. One of the most popular and well liked kids in the high school was in school government, Model United Nations, Its Academic!, and a member of our national champ Marine Physical Fitness team. He dropped his cheerleader girlfriend when he came back after his student exchange stint in Oz, got stoned with us, quoted Monty Python and sometimes walked around in the halls with a raincoat on and Valentine’s boxers around his ankles (he had shorts on under the coat). But he was still a huge braniac and accomplished jock, moved through a lot of circles and, all in all, there were far more of us like him in that regard than stuck to cliques. My own kids have had more of my own experience than any other. All of them were very successful jocks, walked around with a HUGELY overdeveloped sense of justice and did well above the average academically. But most of their friends weren’t jocks, might or mightn’t have done well in school, and were varied in their personal background. All of them were respected and admired but I wouldn’t have called them popular because they could be very outspoken, blunt and only cared about the opinions of those they cared about.

    I think the whole idea that high school is largely composed of separate tribes that keep to themselves isn’t true in most cases. Perhaps there are some individuals at the core of some of these cliques that don’t move about easily in general population but I’m of the opinion that the overwhelming majority of kids move amongst many different circles and don’t categorize themselves or most of the rest of their classmates as one thing or another. Having seen my 4 kids at 3 different high schools of varied size and having coached for more than a decade at different levels, the John Hughes stereotypes don’t seem universal nor particularly common.

  25. SDR says:

    In 100% of my experiences people have disliked nerds, or more correctly what they see as “know it alls” simply because they can’t stand that someone else knows something they don’t or that they could possibly be wrong about something. Human egos are much too easily bruised. Even us skeptics have felt that way more than once in our lives. Non-skeptics just have that in overdrive.

    • Max says:

      People are more sensitive about intelligence than other traits. A study showing that white men can’t jump or Asian men have smaller penises probably wouldn’t be as controversial as a study showing that blacks have lower IQ. A growing number of schools name multiple valedictorians to reduce competition, yet they only have one homecoming king and queen.

  26. Tuffgong says:

    This is all fascinating as a budding sociologist and current high school senior in an American public school. All this stuff is up my alley!

    However I can see myself delving far too deep into every part of this and so I will be short and provide some new experience here.

    There is an important point to be made that has been glossed over. Nerds do not always equal smart. Plenty of my smart colleagues are just as capable of doing all the intellectual task work of my classes as I am. However I’ll be the ghost of Charles Nelson Riley if they’re nerds. Nerds by definition are those passionate about something without a care for the notoriety. If no one else around me cared about video games (which is often the case) I would still continue to swim in the subject every day.

    The other smart kids in my class instead see their intellect and time as a means to some sort of success instead of taking part in something for the sake. They don’t actually cultivate their intellect, but just make sure it’s functional to sustain them to their future success. I don’t blame them in a way because, like Steven said, they aren’t in a period where they are more inclined to act on a nerdiness as they might in college.

    Max and SDR have brought up a great point that intelligence is a highly touchy subject that speaks in highly sensitive language. The brute force of say a “jock’s” success is easy to digest and accept because it’s well dumb. Violence and victory is a universal language because it requires no understanding. It gets much stickier when you relate success, personal worth, and other value factors to intelligence. Basically it boils down to kids don’t like it when people are smarter than them and it’s an easy out to find a label and attack a group that isn’t their own.

  27. Donna Gore says:

    My initial reaction was, “How can ANYONE who has EVER been to DragonCon say that nerds are unpopular???”

  28. Jordan says:

    You see the normal human being wants to feel in charge or at least normal to his/her peers therefore they don’t like a smart person because they don’t feel as much powerful.

  29. Raglfragl says:

    America is sure messed up…here in where I live, there is no such clique as “nerds” “prep” “jocks”, here are just people who are social and those who arent so social, but still the social ones hang out with not so social, the most social succesfull have tons of hobbies from sports to well engineering, not so social dont have many hobbies, one mine friend who is extremelly outgoing, I would say too much outgoing, plays tons of games and you could call him “geek”…smart people here are respected and even the “nerdy” ones who have straigth A, have some respect from social people, even the most social ones have straigth A…well still no one here likes dickheads and elitist pricks, but thats normal.

  30. Daniel says:

    Well people, i just read this article today and sorry to break the train of thought or discussion but I like to point out that in the Bible, God values wisdom. He tells us to seek wisdom out like treasure. In the Christian culture/religion, knowledge/wisdom is highly sought after. You’re no longer considered a “nerd” there but someone who is very capable. As we all know the story of Solomon, the smartest/has the most wisdom in the world as backed up by historical evidence I would think, he conquered many nations and the whole world seeked his support for matters unresolved. I think we have this stereotypes of nerds in our modern society because people are just plain immature and very rarely see things in the long run. I have been to both sides of the world of this so called “popularity” and “nerd”. All it required was a change in interest. Sport and dressing up nicely along with the want to make friends instantly gave me a boost in popularity, while just staying home and studying most of the time decreased the attention or attractiveness that I possess. I think it also just came down to what most people want, and as most people have self-esteem issues they tend to tear smart people down so they can seem greater. This is probably why people in the broader culture coin most smart people as nerds. Jealousy and low confidence.

  31. 8thgraderwho'snamedoesn'tmatteronthisthread says:

    I am regarded as the smartest kid in my grade by parents, peers, and teachers. I am never called a nerd unless it is just jokingly and most of the other kids look up to me and see what i want to do (the popular group, not the REDNECKS… lol) there are two leaders, strangely, in my grade; A very feminine kid (possibly gay) and me. there are around six followers in our group with one being an outcast, another being heavily bullied by the rest of the group, and 4 pop varying followers mostly based on athletic ability. The feminine kid mostly just hangs out with girls and is NEVER going out with a girl but kids still look up to him. I am the one who throws the biggest parties, invites everyone over, and tells people who can sit at our table (i’m not as mean as i sound). NOTE: i am not considering the girls pop group or the blacks in this. our group hangs out with girls too, but the groups are slightly separated but moving closer by the grades. my school is aprox about 3:7 white:black. our school is small; there are120 students in my grade. I do not play football or basket ball and i am not the best baseball player as this is my first year but i am physically attractive to most girls, in good shape, and good at playing the sports even if i am not on the team.

    this is a southern school (i mentioned rednecks earlier) and has a strange social system compared to my old school which is only about 60 miles from my current school.