Friday, October 26, 2012
My Fellow Nerds: Don’t Freak out about that whole “High School Popularity = Greater Success in Later Life” Study.
For those of you unaware, a recent University of Chicago study found (and is being reported that) “Popular” kids in high school tend to make more money later in life. What we have here is a classic case of loose operational definition. In a traditional sense, the dictionary definition of “popular” is essentially: having many friends, being well-liked. Right? This is how the U of C researchers defined popularity for their study. The finding showed that kids who had higher numbers of cohort peers rating them as a friend was associated with making more money in adulthood. But is that really a “popularity” effect?
Let’s derive this a little. One needs only to see Sixteen Candles or Gossip Girl to know that the connotation of “popular” has far more to do with elitism and status than actual friendship. The kids in high school that I considered most “popular” were the homecoming queens and quarterbacks and that one kid who could miraculously fit two fists in his mouth. These kids were social gold. I may have wanted the high school aristocracy to be my friends - but would not have actually called most of them friends. And it would be just as unlikely (if not more so) that they considered me a friend. We may admire and adore the Regina Georges and Jeff Spicolis of the world- but they are rarely friends to those of us in the proletariat rabble. Who did I call a friend? My fellow geek losers. The kids in my Honors English class and my BFF on the yearbook staff. Those were my true homies. I consider myself to be fairly successful, and I DID have a lot of friends. I was not, however, a “popular” kid.
The researchers in this study correctly (in my opinion) identify a strong social network (i.e. having lots of friends) as translating to having greater social capital, and that’s a fair assessment. THAT’s the true finding of this generally well-conducted body of work. Early life social capital has long-been associated later success. But to equate having lots of friendships with “popularity” is flawed because of the semantic psychology behind that concept. Popular media and many readers of the research have and will continue to interpret this finding in the same way I initially did before reading the study: That the cheerleader with the Mercedes and the dope parties is gonna continue to kick your ass well into adulthood. And there’s just no evidence of that.
The true moral of the study? Without getting into the whole correlation does not equal causation argument, I think it’s safe to say that you should go ahead and be nice. Make legitimate friends. Build strong social networks by not being a douche. Have pizza parties. Couple skate. Don’t sweat the fact that you may get more action from a microscope than a football. Gain true social capital from your sincere friendships, and not from status. It may be worth it later in life.
Original study can be found here.
Image via Amazon.