‘Why Nerds are Unpopular’ (some comments)

I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short (Pascal)

I read Paul Graham’s essay some time ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever linked to it here. Since I recently had an excuse to read it again, I figured I might as well put up a link. It’s a very US-centric piece, but worth reading. A few passages from the post:

“And that, I think, is the root of the problem. Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school. […]

For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.

Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who “can draw” like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Likewise, popular isn’t just something you are or you aren’t, but something you make yourself.

The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties.

But I think the main reason other kids persecute nerds is that it’s part of the mechanism of popularity. Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness. It’s much more about alliances. To become more popular, you need to be constantly doing things that bring you close to other popular people, and nothing brings people closer than a common enemy.

Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn’t a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups.”

I think he overstates the case here:

“In almost any group of people you’ll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it’s generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.

We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools.”

However I couldn’t really say for sure because I’ve never set foot in an American high school. I don’t think this is the case in Denmark.

A funny thing about reading the essay was that while it would be easy for me to use my own experiences to affirm the theory of the ‘unpopular nerd’ in the 7-8th grade, a period where I was periodically bullied in school, I find that it does not very well match the (Danish) high-school experience. I btw. didn’t much think of myself as a nerd before the age of, what, 20? Nerds were other people, people much more strange than me – in my self-narrative, I didn’t get bullied because I was a nerd but because those other kids were jerks. I wasn’t really all that different from anyone else (so I told myself). I was told sometimes that I was a nerd in high school, but I shrugged it off because it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t. I didn’t have much clue when it came to the social dynamics of the high school environment, but I don’t think I was ever unpopular. I don’t think I was all that popular either – if so I didn’t notice – it was just that I didn’t pay much attention to that kind of stuff (about this part Graham is right). But an important observation here is that I was allowed not to care by the others.

Graham’s treatment of status as a unidimensional variable is of course a gross simplification of the actual dynamics. One thing I’d add related to the ‘important observation’ above is that whereas status might not be too complex to be semi-reliably measured on a unidimensional scale, it should indeed surprise us a great deal if people who did not do all that well on such a scale would care much about their ordering on such a scale, at least if given any choice in the matter. Any sort of aggregate popularity function would have to be constructed by aggregating stuff that in many cases has little to nothing to do with each other and we should expect people, especially people at the lower ends of the status spectrum, to actually only really care much about the status markers on which they do well. Everyone wants be think that s/he is better than other people, more deserving, so most people just pick a narrative that makes this (…idea? …delusion?) come true, which is one major reason why most people care about but a few dimensions of the social hierarchy. The flip side of the ‘nerds don’t care about being (conventionally) popular’ is that ‘there’s a lot of stuff non-nerds also don’t care about which makes them less popular among nerds’ (and/or other sub-groups) – so why do you care so much about the popularity functions of non-nerds?

Graham spends some time on that one, on why nerds care about the opinions of non-nerds. You have a real problem when you can find no dimensions where you do better than others, or at least no dimensions that many other people care about in the status game. One thing Graham isn’t explicit about though (have thought about?) is that status – like safety (…and money, and…) – is something that people will very often start to care a lot about when they don’t really have much of it. This angle is not really explored in his piece and I find it quite important: A very unpopular nerd probably is more status-conscious than the higher-status bully who makes his life miserable, because he’s forced to confront this aspect of his existence all the time; the bully isn’t. As a general rule, bullied people spend orders of magnitude more time thinking about bullying and related status-stuff than do bullies. I think Graham is missing that part of the equation – being unpopular makes you status-conscious, just like being poor makes you care more about money (maybe I should write a post about that one too? It seems to me that a lot of people with abundant resources are unaware of the fact that part of the reason why they don’t much ‘care about money’ is due to the fact that they have a lot of it, which is precisely what enables them to not care). Anyway, moving along that diagonal; perhaps the people who are (conventionally) popular in the eyes of people who are not don’t really know that they are popular? Perhaps it doesn’t even necessarily take a lot of work to become (conventionally) popular? That would be unfair, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Perhaps some popular high schoolers are just likeable people who do not need to actually do much to stay popular? Perhaps some of them – many of them? – are quite smart and could have become ‘nerds’ but instead decided not to?

Update: I decided to just get rid of four paragraphs because I didn’t much like how they turned out. If you were wondering about that Pascal quote in the beginning, the post used to be a lot longer. It turned out I did have the time to use the mouse to select those passages and delete them.


February 15, 2012 - Posted by | Personal, Psychology


  1. I have often wondered whether writers of american pop culture fiction treat high school life like some kind of exagerated fantasy world with certain rules and races (the jock, the nerd, homecoming queen etc.) – or if there really is such a huge difference between danish and american youth culture? Based on the pop culture popularity is something completely different in America than I ever experienced it in any of the schools I attended. When travelling to America I have always found the americans open and interested in strangers in a way we NEVER see in Northern Europe, so I have a hard time picturing them upholding the social hierarchies depicted in pop culture.

    On the other hand, it seems credible to me, that the germanic keep-to-your-own-attitude of northen Europe makes it easier for “misfits” to be side by side with others without clashes.

    Comment by info | February 15, 2012 | Reply

    • I assume that this is a common problem for a European watching an American show (..and the other way around, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often), to be puzzled as to how much fiction and reality overlap in e.g. US high school dramas, especially when it comes to the social dynamics. What is even more interesting to me though is that people don’t seem to apply the same kind of puzzlement and curiosity to other fictional worlds; like the world of doctors, lawyers, policemen and other stock characters on TV-shows. How many plumbers or dentists really know anything about the real life of a lawyer; how many actually know a lawyer or a doctor? Why would you as a European be more likely to trust the truthfulness of the fictional narrative when it deals with the life of a policeman living thousands of kilometres away than when it deals with the life of a high-schooler (who also happen to live thousands of kilometres away)? Because one account does not match your expectations whereas the other account does? In that case: Where did your expectations come from – are you applying a double standard here? (not questions to you, just general questions one might ask oneself.)

      What I like to think of as a good decision rule to apply in general is to ask how convenient the presented social dynamics are in terms of story-telling, plot-structures ect. My contention is then that: d(estimated strength of the fiction/reality overlap)/d(convenience of social setting X for the writer/producer) should be negative.

      Imagine you didn’t have jocks, nerds or shallow and superficial cheerleaders. Imagine everybody in a high-school TV-series basically just fumbled about, having no real idea who they really are (/are becoming), which ‘group’ they belong to (which groups actually exist?), what kind of persons they’d want to be, what their ideal partner would be like, ect.. I kinda assume that’s how a lot of actual teenagers live their lives: That period of life is fraught with identity insecurities, dynamic social lives (not carved in stone: ‘Cheerleader’, ‘Nerd,…) and so on.

      It would be a nightmare to write that.

      A separate issue is that I think that by now, the Coconut Effect has basically taken over when we’re dealing with the high-school setup. Reality has become unrealistic.

      Another issue – which I did not deal with in the first version of this comment but only added later – is that to some degree mass culture influence (/form?) social norms and expectations in real life. It’s not just that fiction writers pick a convenient setting where they perhaps exaggerate a few aspects/themes; it’s also that to some degree there’s feedback between the world of fiction and the real world. This feedback isn’t just relevant for current high-schoolers; a lot of people above the age of 30 has forgotten much of what it was like to be 17, and the memories they have now and the ideas they have about what it used to be like are likely to be/have been impacted by current popular culture approaches to the issues.

      Comment by US | February 26, 2012 | Reply

      • Hehe. I take it you agree that there seem to be a separate fantasy universe depicting the mysterious creatures of Higschoolia. Oh, and on’t get me started on the credibilty of american crime fiction. Some of it, like the CSI-series, is impossible to watch due to lack of realism. Whenever the detectives get stuck, they just pull out some completely impossible gadget to solve it all.

        I don’t believe at all that credible and go youth dramas old be hard to write – on the contrary: it is an age where the world is dramatic under all circumstances. But it is true that they probably wouldn’t make great soaps. It is better to stick with the conventional ‘truths’ instead.

        Comment by info | February 27, 2012

  2. For some reason a lot of letters isn’t there in the post above. I hope I make sense somewhat anyway.

    Comment by info | February 27, 2012 | Reply

  3. Maybe I should have been more precise: It would be a nightmare to be given the task of writing a realistic youth drama in a way that would also make a lot of people watch them (/in the long run).

    I’ve never seen CSI but it’s nice to know that I haven’t missed anything.

    Comment by US | March 1, 2012 | Reply

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