The Popular Kids Who Tortured You in High School Are Now Rich

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Oct. 23 2012 10:11 AM

The Popular Kids Who Tortured You in High School Are Now Rich

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I will OWN you

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He-ey girls! I was just looking through our high school yearbook, reminiscing about all the AMAZING times we had together. Remember when we all wore matching baby tees for Senior Spirit Day? Remember when we had that party after the big football game and didn’t invite any of the theater nerds and drank a lot of Zima and it was AWESOME? Okay, well anyway. I just read this study from the National Bureau of Economic Research and now I understand why I am rolling in dough.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Get this: These researchers—Gabriella Conti, Andrea Galeotti, Gerrit Mueller and Stephen Pudney—totally found that students who were more popular in high school make more money later on. They measured popularity using a concept from social network theory called “in-degree”—basically the number of friendship nominations a student receives from his classmates. (The number of nominations a student gives is called out-degree, and it doesn’t correlate with increased income, since it only measures how popular the kid thinks he is.) These researcher people found that just one more in-vote in high school is associated with “a 2 percent wage advantage 35 years later.” That advantage is equivalent to 40 percent of the wage boost you’d get from another whole year of education. Awesome shortcut!

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I know what you’re thinking. You’re like, but what about factors like socioeconomic status, family background, school quality, IQ, human and social capital, and adult personality traits? What about the idea that more contacts in high school could spill over into more adult connections, which certainly doesn’t hurt anyone networking for a job? The study totally controlled for all that. When Slate’s skeptical health and science editor Laura Helmuth (I have such a girl crush on her) finished vetting the study, she told me, “This looks like a legitimate effect. The authors propose that the popular kids understand the ‘rules of the game’ socially and know how to gain acceptance and support; when to trust; and when to reciprocate.”

Crazy, right? In case you’re wondering, the three biggest determinants of friendship nominations were whether someone had a “warm early family environment,” whether they shared attributes that were common among a lot of the students (this idea called homophily says that we flock to people who have similar characteristics to us, in terms of age, race, gender and religion), and whether they were “relatively older and smarter” than their peers. For my part, I am so glad my parents kept reassuring me that I am a glorious precious sapphire whose light will never dim, and that they decided to wait a year before starting me in kindergarten.

Also, Beth, don’t let anyone tell you you were prom queen because your dad owns Harris Teeter. The study says that “relative family income status plays only a minor role” in popularity.

The kids in the paper are part of a 50-year-old survey called the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which first started tracking ties between white male high school students in 1957. Researchers have checked back in on the cohort seven times since then, noting the participants’ incomes, family formation, labor market history, educational attainment, and more. So I suppose you could argue that the deck may be stacked differently for people who attended high school after the late '50s, or are nonwhite, or are female.

But, like, that totally doesn’t explain the Benz in my driveway right now. Anyways, I gotta run to Pilates.

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