Paper Talk: Everybody Wants to Be Popular

… and a featured NBER paper seeks to quantify exactly why, and how, popularity pays off.

Popularity Pays Off

I’m a steadfast believer that your smarts are what get you where you want to go in life – and this paper starts off that way. But, the musical Wicked couldn’t have devoted an entire song to the concept of being popular for nothing. This popular seeks to determine the factors that create popularity, and how popularity – which can be interpreted as human capital in high school terms – relates to later life success.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, dear readers (Hi Mom) – were YOU popular in high school, Priya?

I was nerdy and proud, dear readers (Hi Mom). Nerdy and proud. But I digress.

The paper uses some interesting data to determine popularity, and then to go a step farther and rank students in popularity percentiles. The number of people who call you their friend is one measure of popularity (the in-degree), while the number of people you name as your friends is another measure (the out-degree). I suspect the first measure is more relevant than the second.

Being from a large town decreased measures of popularity, while intelligence increased it. Deviation from the mean year of birth had a negative effect, while higher incomes were associated with higher popularity. I would have loved to see a measure of physical attractiveness included in the study, as I believe this is also an important factor in determining popularity and later-life success.

Interestingly, the out-degree of popularity has no relationship to later life earnings. The in-degree of popularity, however, has a strong correlation to future wages: gaining one more in-degree equates to a 7% rise in wages. Of course, some of this premium can be attributed to the factors discussed earlier: geographic location, parental education, and family income are all factors that correlate with innate ability. However, a popularity premium certainly exists based on non-cognitive skills and social capital.

– Nerdy and proud.


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