Teens looking like they think they're cool

Nerds get their revenge: Cool kids not so cool 10 years later says study

Elizabeth Bromstein|

People who were not cool in school will find a new study to be of some interest.

According to research at the University of Virginia, being cool at 13 is no guarantee you’ll be cool at 23.

The study, led by psychology professor Joseph P. Allen, and published in the journal Child Development, defined “cool kids” as kids who engaged in what the researchers call “pseudo-mature” behaviour. This included precocious romantic relationships, and minor delinquency.

Researchers followed 184 people from age 13 to 23, of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, all of whom attended public schools in the southeastern United States.

CNN reports:

    To measure coolness, students were asked about their romantic behavior, including how many people they “made out” with. They were asked how many times they had damaged or destroyed property belonging to parents, sneaked into a movie without paying, stolen items from parents or family members, and whether they had used drugs and/or marijuana.

So, it appears that a lot of the behaviour could also be classified as delinquent.

The survey found that such behaviour – much of which could just be classified as “delinquent” – elicited high levels of admiration at a young age, but that the levels of this admiration had faded significantly a decade later.

By age 22, the former cool kids’ were using 40% more drugs and alcohol than the formerly less cool kids and were 22% more likely to be running afoul of the law. Their peers also thought them less competent at managing relationships, and were less impressed now that the minor delinquency had progressed to more serious criminal behaviour. Looking at social competence, including how well they got along with friends and partners, the now less cool kids received ratings that were 24% lower than their now more cool peers.

“It appears that while so-called cool teens’ behaviour might have been linked to early popularity, over time, these teens needed more and more extreme behaviours to try to appear cool, at least to a subgroup of other teens,” said Allen. “So they became involved in more serious criminal behaviour and alcohol and drug use as adolescence progressed.”

He calls the result the “high school reunion effect,” and explains, “You see the person who was cool … did exciting things that were intimidating and seemed glamorous at the time and then five or 10 years later, they are working in a menial job and have poor relationships and such, and the other kid who was quiet and had good friends but didn’t really attract much attention and was a little intimidated is doing great.

“It’s … revenge of the quiet, good kids.”

And it’s not exactly a shock to anyone who has actually attended their high school reunion. I, a former high school loser, went to mine – more than 20 years after dropping out – and was awestruck by how normal and nonthreatening everyone who had caused me such anguish had turned out to be. Had I really allowed these unremarkable people to lord such power over my happiness? Yeesh. Was I crazy?

This study appears to contradict another that found that the kids who were popular in high school were still on top, and making more money than their less popular peers, decades after graduation.

That study followed 10,000 high school grads over 40 years and found that over the course of their careers the more popular students earn 2% higher salaries than the average of their peers. When you compare just the most popular students’ salaries to the least popular students,’ the difference is a more striking 10% premium for the former cool kids.

But that study measured popularity in the purest sense of the word: by how many friends a person had, while this one measured social capital on rebellion. So, the popular kids from the second study might have just been nice and genuinely well liked. (Yes, those kids actually do exist. I know a few.)

What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure, but I think it might be something like “don’t be an idiot,” which is just good advice, for career and for life.


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