If you were hoping that the popular high school football player and the cheerleader he dated didn’t go very far in life once they graduated, the National Bureau of Economic Research has some bad news for you. According to a new study released earlier this week, popularity among peers can translate to a wage premium of as much as 10% even four decades after graduation.
The good news is that the study’s authors – Gabriela Conti, Andrea Galeotti, Gerrit Mueller and Stephen Pudney – don’t view popularity as a personality trait one is born with. Instead, popular kids are often popular because they have already begun to figure out how to “play the game” in order to maximize the number of people who have positive view of them. Put like that, it is no wonder that they perform better than their peers when they eventually enter the workforce, as these qualities will make them more appealing both to their superiors and their peers. The advantage of popularity was so pronounced that it led authors to recommend that schools invest resources in teaching social skills to their students.
Quantifying something that is as ephemeral as popularity is a tricky proposition for the researchers. Their findings rests on a model that relies on a survey of student connections called the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has been running for more than 50 years. The Wisconsin data is important because it allows the researchers to understand the direction of friendship. The researchers are able to see the web of relationships and determine who is actually popular, rather than who perceives themselves to be so.
What has an impact on popularity? Some surprising things. While family income does play a role, its impact pales in comparison with things like age and intelligence. Students who were older and smarter were, on the whole, considered more popular than their younger and less intelligent peers.
According to the researchers, high school is a perfect time to study the predictive power of popularity because it is the point when students start to coalesce into a peer group rather than a group led by older authority figures like teachers and parents. Thus, this is the first opportunity to assess what kind of qualities will earn esteem from their peers rather than from their elders.
The paper suggested that when schools try to prepare their students for successful lives, a purely academic focus might not be enough. “Policies that focus on promoting integration in schools and on developing social competencies may be a fruitful way of promoting success in life,” the researcher wrote.