George V. Reilly

Why Nerds are Unpopular in American high schools

(Originally posted to Ireland at EraBlog on Mon, 24 Feb 2003 02:58:05 GMT)

Paul Graham has an insightful essay on why nerds are unpopular in American high schools.

So if in­tel­li­gence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so con­sis­tent­ly unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don’t really want to be popular.


But in fact I didn’t, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design marvellous rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things, which seems a more accurate definition of smart than the passive one implicit in IQ tests.


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.

… [T]he [new] world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven year olds to their own devices, they’ll usually create a Lord of the Flies world.


Un­pop­u­lar­i­ty is a com­mu­ni­ca­ble disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.

It’s no wonder, then, that smart kids tend to be unhappy in middle school and high school. Their other interests leave them little attention to spare for popularity, and since popularity resembles a zero-sum game, this in turn makes them targets for the whole school. And the strange thing is, this nightmare scenario happens without any conscious malice, merely because of the shape of the situation.


Bullying was only part of the problem. Another problem, and possibly an even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on.

Most of my nerdy American friends would probably identify with this. They have less-than-fond memories of their high school years.

But I don’t remember this phenomenon from my own secondary school years in Ireland (Graham says he didn’t see it when he lived in Italy). Perhaps my experience was atypical, but I don’t remember all the nerds in Computer Science at Trinity griping about this either.

That’s not to say that we were popular; we weren’t, par­tic­u­lar­ly. But there wasn’t such a marked hierarchy of popularity that seems rife in American high schools.

I went to St. Mary’s College, Rathmines, an all-boys private day school in Dublin for eleven years: 7-12 in the Junior School, 12-18 in the Senior School. There was little turnover, so most of the same faces stayed the whole way through. It was a relatively small school by American standards, with 50-60 boys in each year, divided into two classes.

I was quiet, small, unathletic, and bright. I usually came second or third aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, but was otherwise undis­tin­guished. The better rugby players tended to be popular, but many of the best students were also rugby players. If my friends and I were being ostracized, it can’t have been too traumatic, since I have no particular rec­ol­lec­tion of it.

There were two or three boys who were very unpopular. One was effeminate and annoying; how much of the latter was a reaction to being outcast, I can’t say. Another would surely have been a Trenchcoat Mafioso, if we had had such a thing.

Perhaps not having girls in the school, with the consequent adolescent sexual tension, may have helped.

I did the Leaving Cert (graduated high school) in 1983. No doubt, some memories have dimmed with time, and things may have grown worse for current secondary schoolers.

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