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Walking down the street the other day, I saw a kid with proper NHS glasses. It took me right back to my primary school days, when the kids who needed glasses had no other option. It got me wondering whether, as budgets nosedive, we'll now start to see more kids having to wear the most basic of spectacles. And then I got to thinking about how this might not be a problem:  1970s NHS-style frames have become cool - even Mr Timberlake wears them. This is, of course, tied to the rise of the nerds. But here's an interesting thing: the whole nerd subculture is something of a myth.

I'm getting this from my new favourite researcher, Hanke Korpershoek. In 2008, she published a study about whether the “nerd” stereotype of the male science student was justified. The paper, published in Pedagogische Studiën, 83, 141-156, is in Dutch:

Korpershoek, H., Kuyper, H., & van der Werf, M. P. C. (2008). Zijn bèta’s nerds? Verschillen in persoonlijkheid, sociale contacten en vrijetijdsbesteding tussen jongens met natuur & techniek en jongens met andere profielen

The translation: Are male science students nerds? Differences in personality, social contacts, and leisure activities.

When I asked her about this study (primarily based on questionnaire responses from 1812 boys in secondary education), Korpershoek kindly wrote me a summary, which is what I’m working from here (direct quotes are in italics).

This study dealt with the stereotyped image of male science students as “nerds”. We sought to discover whether science students in fact represent a certain type of the student population. Based on a literature review, we hypothesized that:

(1) science students have lower scores on the personality factor Extraversion than other students

(2) science students have less social contacts than other students

(3) science students spend more time using a computer and other media than other students

(4) science students spend less time on sports, relationships, and social contacts than other students.


So, which of those do you think is true?

(1) is true. Science students are less extrovert

(2) is also true, but only because the "science boys" (that’s what they called them in the study) had fewer female friends than non-science boys. The number of male friends was no different – and it’s worth noting that the lack of female friends was only PRE-UNIVERSITY. Once they were in higher education, the female friend quotient lifts back to “normal”.  Stick with it, nerd boys, it all comes good in the end …

(3) is not true. Science is not a route to social oblivion.

(4) is true: science boys indeed spent less time on sports, relationships, and social contacts than other boys. But the differences between the two groups were (very) small. 

Korpershoek’s take-home summary? “The results suggested that stereotyping male science students as nerds is largely unfounded.”

Looks like the nerd thing is a myth. So who created it? Was it the geeks trying to carve themselves an identity? It seems to have been extraordinarily successful as a social construct.

btw, Korpershoek is preparing a new paper (in English) with new data, so watch this space....