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Study: The popular kids out earn their less popular peers

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Caroline May
Political Reporter

So much for the nugget of hope many “nerds” and “geeks” cling to as they navigate the travails of high school — a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that popular high school student tend to outearn their less popular peers over time.

Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a survey of life conditions covering a random sample of 10,317 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957, researchers Gabriella Conti of the University of Chicago, Gerritt Mueller of the Institute for Employment Research, and Andrea Galeotti and Stephen Pudney of the University of Essex, studied the correlation between former students’ relative popularity and their economic success later in life.

The Washington Post reports that in 1957, students were asked to write down the names of their three closest friends, and those who were cited most often were deemed by the researchers to be the most popular students. The researchers today found that back then, the more popular students came from “warm family environments,” and tended to be older and smarter.

Thirty-five years later, the more popular students earned 2 percent more than their less popular counterparts, “which is roughly 40 percent of the return accruing to one more year of education,” the researchers write. Further, shifting a student from the 20th percentile of popularity to the 80th percentile results in a wage increase of 10 percent 40 years later.

The researchers note that the popularity “effect appears to be stronger among those who migrate from Wisconsin to pursue their careers,” but add that the inter-personal skills that lead to popularity are also important in the workplace.

“Thus, social interactions within the group of classmates provide the bridge to the adult world as they train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles,” the researchers write. “Consistent with this view, we interpret our measure of popularity as a measure of the stock of social skills of a particular individual, rather than a measure of an innate personality trait.”

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