Sorry, nerds: Popular kids earn more in the long run

Higher earnings are so fetch. (Michael Gibson -- Associated Press)

A new working paper may throw some cold water on any "Revenge of the Nerds" fantasies: It finds that more popular high school students earn more than their less-liked counterparts -- even decades after graduation.

Gabriella Conti, Gerritt Mueller, Andrea Galeotti and Stephen Pudney used data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a survey of over 10,000 men and women who graduated from a Wisconsin high school in 1957. Researchers have continually followed up with this group, checking in on their social characteristics and career achievements.

Back in 1957, these high school students were asked to list three people they considered their closest friends. Those who had their names written down the most were deemed the most popular: They're the ones that many people consider close friends.

Over five decades later, this team of researchers went back into the data to see what they could understand about popularity: Why did some kids get their names written down more than others? And what would that mean for their future successes?

They learned a few things: Those who tended to be more popular came from "warm family environments." Contrary to any nerd stereotypes, students who were smarter (and also older) tended to receive more friendship listings than their younger or less intelligent peers. Family economic status appeared to play a minor role.

That was the student's past. As the researchers looked toward the future, they found that 35 years down the road, the more popular students earned 2 percent more than their peers. That's nearly half -- 40 percent -- of the wage differential that students accrue from an additional year of education.

If a student moved from the 20th percentile of popular up to the 80th percentile it would yield a salary 10 percent higher -- 40 years later. This held true after accounting for a number of separate variables, including family background, school quality, cognitive ability and adult personality traits.

The authors consider a few theories of why popular students might earn more, including the possibility that the connections they make in high school might lead to more opportunities down the road. They settle on a simpler explanation as the most likely: The traits that make a student better-liked are pretty similar to those that make one successful in the workforce.

Social interactions in high school "train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles," the researchers conclude. "Consistent with our view, we interpret our measure of popularity as a measure of the stock of social skills of a particular individual."

Also on Wonkblog

Could one word 'make or break' the health-care law?