The Economic Value of Popularity

It probably seems obvious to most people that being likeable and having good friends could be valuable in life. Since most economists are neither likeable nor have good friends, it is an idea that hasn’t been studied by economists until now.

My friend Gabriella Conti and a host of co-authors try to quantitatively measure the association between high-school popularity and wage earnings 35 years later in a new research paper.

“What a 1957 friend could do for you might be very different than what a 2009 friend can do for you.”

They use data from roughly 4,000 male respondents in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. In a 1975 survey, they were asked to name up to three of their closest friends when they were in high school back in 1957. Conti et al. then use the number of other people who named a specific person as a friend as their measure of that person’s popularity, and they compare that to a person’s current earnings.

They find that each extra close friend in high school is associated with earnings that are 2 percent higher later in life after controlling for other factors. While not a huge effect, it does suggest that either that a) the same factors that make you popular in high school help you in a job setting, or b) that high-school friends can do you favors later in life that will earn you higher wages.

Before you get on the phone to call your old high-school pals to complain that they’ve never done one darn thing to earn you more money, a few caveats are in order about the study.

First, out of necessity (because the authors want to look at earnings later in life) the data on friends is very old. What a 1957 friend could do for you might be very different than what a 2009 friend can do for you. Second, if I understand it correctly, people are asked to name their high-school friends 18 years after high school. I could easily imagine that there is a bias toward naming people who have been successful since high school as friends. For instance, I would imagine that if you went back and surveyed the people who went to high school with Barack Obama, his name would appear on the list of close friends a lot more today than it would have 20 years ago. Third — and this is quite interesting in its own right — popularity is highly correlated with other traits that prove to be very valuable in the labor force. For instance, people with high I.Q.’s and who planned to go to college are much more popular in their data. People with high I.Q.’s and lots of years of education also earn higher wages. While the 2 percent wage premium associated with popularity attempts to control for these other factors, to the extent that the authors aren’t able to control for everything, it is likely that their estimates will overstate the importance of popularity.

This is a very interesting study, especially when put side-by-side with Roland Fryer‘s work on the “acting white” phenomenon among African-American teens. Roland finds that — unlike whites — among African-Americans, the students who are most successful academically in high school are punished by their peers when it comes to popularity. That finding has inspired Roland to institute a number of programs in the New York schools to try to make it “cool” to do well in school. In light of this new paper by Gabriella Conti and co-authors, I am even more eager to find out if Roland’s programs are working.

(A brief write-up of the Conti et al. research recently appeared in the London Times.)

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  1. Mike says:

    And height! Tall people have more friends, and as you guys showed, get paid more!

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  2. Caitlyn says:

    not to mention the better social skills – a personality that was popular in high school would be popular with interviewers and bosses as well.

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  3. Jeremy says:

    I experienced a trend similar to that described in Fryer’s work in a rural and primarily blue collar area. Are there any studies on the correlation between population density, academic success and popularity?

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  4. jake says:

    popularity does not necessarily equate to likeability in high school, or anywhere else. many of the most popular kids are so because of factors unrelated to the attractiveness of their personality – conspicuous displays of wealth, athletic prowess, prominence and connection of their parents within the community – some of the same reasons adults gravitate toward one another. Not because they are “friends” in a meaningful sense. i would argue that for adults, likeability is ultimately more valuable in an economic sense than pure popularity.

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  5. natasha says:

    Why did they only poll men?

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  6. Robin says:

    “Since most economists are neither likeable nor have good friends”

    “My friend Gabriella Conti”

    Should she be insulted, or are you not most economists? :)

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  7. Adam says:

    Whether quantifiable or not, I definitely believe there is a correlation between popularity and future success… However, I think too much popularity early on in developmental stages brings a negative effect of keeping the individual from pursuing future goals. The high school quarterback is already at the top of his game, why should he work hard at anything else… This is probably why so many end up working at the local auto mechanic (as mine did). Maybe “popularily” isn’t the best term, but what about “likability”? Nerds like me in high school may have been likable but surely not popular. Knowing that I couldn’t rely on my looks or athletic ability led me to work harder at what I was good at (school) to progress. However, at a certain point social skills and likability come into play when you interview for a job or when managers are determined by leadership qualities. I think these depend more on likability than pure skill and also have more of an effect on future success.

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  8. HillbillySid says:

    So if I could just be a tall, popular, left-handed male then all my troubles would be over? I at least have the male thing going for me.

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