‘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.