Why Nerds Are Unpopular

Just wanted to share what I thought was an excellent essay by Paul Graham entitled “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”. Despite the title, it’s actually a much broader essay covering the social conditions of American schools.


Hope you all enjoy reading it and wanted to know what anyone thought? Any criticisms/praise?

Well, based on initial skim, it seems to be a fairly well-thought out piece, but I think that there is also a streak of anti-intellectualism in American society that he fails to address. George Bush and Bill Clinton both went to great lengths to portray themselves to the public as something other than intellectuals, even though one of them is considered a very smart man even by his opponents. (That’s sufficiently neutral to avoid this degenerating).

I remember when the Columbine massacre happened and it came out that the killers were those on the margins of high school society and were targeting “popular” kids. While I can’t condone their methods, I could sympathize with their motivations. It made this article funny.

In elementary school, one of my good friends was very, very much like me. We both loved to read, were both considered “gifted,” and spent a whole lot of time together doing the same things. Now, in high school, she’s one of those people considered a “nerd” and I’m not.

I suppose I could be called a B or B-, but my friend, S, would be a D.

I think there are a few different reasons for this. First of all (and I am not trying to sound snobby here), I’m considered pretty good-looking. I’m generally described as “hot.” My friend, S, is not. And, unfortuneately, looks go a long way in our terribly shallow world.

Also, I’m a very outgoing person. If I walk into a room and there’s no one there that I know, I will go and start introducing myself to people. I’m friendly, and I also flirt a lot. S is the opposite. She’s incredibly shy. If you were to walk into a room, she would be the one sitting in the back of the room reading a book and interacting with no one.

My looks and outgoing personality got me pretty far. However, I’m really not the average teenager. I don’t associate with kids only in my own “class.” I’m friendly to the nerds, I’m friendly to the learning-disabled kids, as well as others who could be considered “below” me. I openly tell those people that are mean to make fun of people “below” them that they are being terribly cruel and shouldn’t do that.

Now comes the question as to why I am as I am. Why am I not a cruel teenager just like so many others? My guess is that I’ve had to suffer through the torments of my peers in the past. Back in elementary school, I had a really rough time. My best friend of many years suddenly turned on me, and she and a whole group of other girls were very, very mean to me. To a child, this is absolutely devastating. However, in retrospect, I’m almost glad that this happened because it has given me sympathy for others in similar situations, and I think therefore that it has made me a better person.

I definately agree with this. I hate being unchallenged; I think I’m probably one of the only students my teachers ever hear complain about not being challenged enough. The only way to keep from going insane with all this is to do logic problems and stuff like that to keep my brain working.

I’m glad you posted this article, fighting ignorant. It really helped put things in perspective for me, as a highschool student. I never really thought of school as a place where they stick us because they have nothing else to do with us.


I thank you very much for a very interesting read, fighting ignorant It is a very fresh perspective in the popularity equation. Its also real long :confused: so I had to stop 3/4 of the way thru. What I read of it thus far was insightful and meaningful. I appreciated the article very much.

Great article, if a little long-winded. I couldn’t agree more with what he says here:

Now, I still don’t know what to do about it, but I think he’s cut straight to the heart of the problem.

It was a good article, and it definitely mirrored some of my conclusions back in high school. I knew the only reason I wasn’t off at college yet was because I was a minor, and that most of what I was doing was busywork. Bollocks to that.

I thought it fell apart a little bit at the end, but not so much that it detracts from the main thrust of the piece. Very well done.

Good article. i came to the same conclusion a few years ago about why high school is so debased. When people’s lives have no meaning, they create meaning via popularity contests.

By definition they are unpopular, since they do not wear what is in style, are not attractive or do not groom themselves, and stay to themselves. They are doing everything to prevent themselves from “Winning friends and influencing people.” What is to understand?

I would agree with most of the article. I think now that I came from an odd highschool, though, because most of the popular people WERE smart, and most of the smart people were popular.

It was like there were two popular groups. The football players/cheerleaders, and the smart people, mostly music students. While the first group may have been a tad more popular, there wasn’t that much of a gap.

And for some reason, I got to sit with the smart, popular, musical kids. Odd indeed.

I liked the article, but it did kind of drag on.

I think the reason certain people are considered unsavory is because it is very difficult to be popular. It’s not something that you can gain by throwing brain power at, and unfortunatley, you either, most of the time, have it or you don’t. Just like you either have that big brain or you don’t.

To be popular, you have to have social savvy to woo your peers, you have to have the charisma and conformity to earn the favor of your superiors. You have to have looks and the sense of humour so people will want to flock around you. You have to have confidence in yourself. It’s not easy to gain the admiration of so many and to be at the top of such a vicious hierarchy.

I’ve tried half heartedly to become more popular, and while I was making some progress, I noticed that I felt awkward as hell. It just wasn’t me. I wasn’t interested in the same things they were, I wasn’t interested in entertaining them or conforming to their standards.

I guess both ends of the spectrum look down on each other because of what the other lacks.

School starts again tommorow, so maybe I’ll try to make some observations about the various cliques and how they interact.

I think he may have a point about “nerds” not doing the work required to be popular (although I have my doubts about the rest of the article). monica’s comments about being outgoing are interesting, and the effect of physical looks is telling.

“Nerds” (like myself) regard many things involved in popularity, such as interest in sports or a desire to have the latest clothing, as superficial, boring, and simply a waste of time, money, and effort.

I disagree. I think he’s romanticized the past. For one thing, there simply wasn’t time to make trouble. Life as a hunter/gatherer or a farmer (even today) is hard.

I reluctantly suspect that, if there really was increased respect in the past, it included fear and servility because of much harsher punishment for offenses of every kind. Note that troubled teens improve their behavior and attitude while attending “boot camps” and most relapse afterward. I’m not saying we should return to harsher punishments. But if we don’t look at things as they exist, we’ll definitely fail to improve things. We must also seriously and exhaustively consider the effects of any changes we make.

He says elsewhere in the article that in Italy large families make for happier teenagers. I suspect he’s romanticized this as well and is depending only on his own limited outsider observations. And even within a family, one child can bully or make trouble for another, as I’m sure many SDMB members can relate.

One answer to making school more relevant could be for families and school administration to emphasize academic achievement and make as much fuss over it as they do over sports. That’ll happen.

kniz, I know, it’s so obvious! Those darn nerds, they don’t like to work at being popular, they’re just socially lazy and shiftless.

Very interesting article. I think the article should have been called something like “Why there are nerds,” or “Why some kids are unpopular,” as kniz points out.

I also think he left out one major reason there are “nerds” in school societies (or maybe I just overlooked that part of the essay): The superficiality of society as a whole. Often times those that are on the bottom of the hierarchy have low self esteem because they don’t look how society tells them they should. Forget intelligence. The real “outcasts” were the scrawny, fat, coke-bottle-glasses wearing, pimply, tall, gangly, short, handicapped, buck-toothed, etc. kids that lacked confidence because they didn’t “stack up.”

Not all “nerds” are smart. Often times the ones classified as “nerds” just lack the self-esteem to stand up for themselves. And those are the kids who don’t have the distractions the popular kids have (parties, sporting events, dating, or whatever) so left with nothing else to do, they could either study or do absolutely nothing (like watch tv or sleep or… I don’t know-- masturbate a lot ;)).

I don’t think being smart so much makes a nerd as lack of self-esteem does.

But I think this still goes back to what Graham was saying: when a kids’ life has no meaning, they build false hierarcies, creating for themselves what characteristics to value in an individual. But kids are immature and nowadays superficial. And if an individual doesn’t possess those valued characteristics, their self-esteem drops, and they become like bloody meat for the sharks.

Happy, a now-confident nerd, speaking from experience

kniz: Sometimes you have to read past the title of an article to understand what it’s saying. :wink:

Ok, here we go, I’m a Sophmore in High School. On the A-D scale, I’d say B, but thats taking into account that the upper echelon of popular people are mostly seniors.

The main thing that determines popularity is your physical appearance. There are no fat/ugly A or B people. Thats just the way it goes.

The second thing that determines popularity is money. It runs the real world, so why wouldn’t it have an affect on the mini-world that is a High School? There aren’t any A or B people running around in K-Mart shirts and Wal*Mart shoes.

The third thing is personality, although I know people who are insanely popular, that have absolutely no personality, we’re talking pet rocks here.

One of the definition of nerds is they don’t have social/people skills. That’s why they are unpopular.

This reinforces what I said in my previous post.
Money=nice home to invite people over, nice car, nice clothes=confidence;
Charm, personality=confidence.

I’m not saying unattractive people lack personality, etc., but like whiteboy said, lack of one or more of these three ingredients-- and the self-esteem that often goes with it-- is what puts people at the “D” table. Being smart or interested in intelectual pursuits doesn’t put a person there.

And that’s where I think Graham’s essay is flawed. His focus is on smarts.


I’m willing to bet that if you took enough nerds from a selection of high schools and created Nerd High, It would generate into the same kind of popularity heriarchy as a regular high school.

degenerate, even.

Interesting… scratches chin “Nerd High, Nerd High…”

Excuse me all, but I have to go write a letter to the head of FOX programming-- I mean, uh, go to the kitchen.

Probably. In the book ‘the lucifer principle’ there were a couple of experiments like that.

In one experiment, they put boys in summer camphouses, and a heirarchy developed. Leader, bully, joker & nerd. Each person’s personality changed to fit the role.

They then took 4 leaders and put them in one house, and those 4 previous leaders became a leader, bully, joker & nerd.

In another experiment researchers found that ants had a small population (about 5% probably) that were lazy. While the 95% worked, the 5% lied around. They then seperated the 2 and made 2 colonies. Of the 95%, 5% of them became lazy, and of the previous 5%, all but 5% became hard workers.

I wish there was a good sociology book on this kind of info, it is very interesting because it is applicable.