Like it or hate it, school has a social pecking order for most people. From grade school to high school, students form social groups or cliques, and some are more popular than others. While many students are lost somewhere in the middle in terms of popularity, the students at the top and at the bottom stand out the most. There are the high status popular kids who are often seen as the ideal everyone else strives for, and then there are the social misfits at the bottom who are often shunned lest their undesirable attributes rub off on anyone else above them. Nerds are usually lumped together with the others in this bottom group. Outside of school, popular kids and nerds have caught the attention of Hollywood, resulting in a steady stream of movies and TV shows about these opposing social groups.
While these depictions of popular kids and nerds have entertained us over the years, how accurate are they? And what happens to popular kids and nerds after they get out of school? We will try to answer these questions in this episode of The Infographics Show, “Popular Kids vs. Nerds.” Both popular kids and nerds are on the giving and receiving end of bullying. In teenage movies such as Pretty in Pink, Clueless, and Mean Girls, popular kids are often portrayed as bullies. Research indicates that this movie image is fairly accurate.
A study conducted by sociologist Bob Faris and his co-author Diane Felmlee reveals that “popular kids – except those at the absolute top of the social ladder – are most likely to act aggressively toward other kids.” This aggression comes in the form of “normative targeting” or bullying kids “who break social norms” such as nerds, but it also emerges in another surprising form. Contrary to popular belief, not all popular kids are safe from bullying. Some popular kids will pick on other popular kids whose popularity is growing. These aggressive kids engage in what Faris and his colleagues call “’instrumental targeting’” or the use of bullying “as an instrument or tool to gain social status.” In other words, they are acting out the age-old story of building themselves up by tearing others down. Another surprising finding of the study is the reaction of the popular kids who were bullied by one of their peers. According to Faris and Felmlee’s study, “any given bullying incident .
. . hurts more, emotionally, for a popular kid than an unpopular one.” These popular kids feel more anxiety than unpopular kids because they think that they have more to lose.
It unnerves them that a social competitor could undo all of the hard work they put in to increase their social status. The only kids who seem to be safe from bullying are those at the absolute top of the social hierarchy because as Faris states, “no one is trying to topple them from their perches.” The popular mass media image of nerds as victims of bullying is also fairly realistic. We could not find studies that focused specifically on “nerd-only” bullying, but we did notice that some characteristics of nerds put them at greater risk for being bullied according to stopbullying.gov. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a nerd as “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” These characteristics could easily lead to a nerd being “perceived as different from their peers” and being “less popular than others,” which are two of the risk factors for bullying listed on stopbullying.gov.
However, some nerds may also meet a third risk factor on stopbullying.gov’s list: “Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention.” There are anecdotal reports of encounters with “’angry nerds’” and “jerk nerds” as a few Reddit users call them. Unlike the likeable but helpless nerds frequently seen on television and in the movies, these nerds annoy people with their “condescending” behavior and “intellectual superiority.”