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.)


Mike

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

Caitlyn

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

Jeremy

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?

jake

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.

natasha

Why did they only poll men?

Robin

"Since most economists are neither likeable nor have good friends"

"My friend Gabriella Conti"

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

Adam

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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HillbillySid

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.

science minded

an interesting idea- I remember all of my classmates (there were around 27 of them), but was not one of the popular ones. social skills were quite weak at the time. Looking back though, I must admit there was something I liked about every one of my class mates and were I to do it all over again, I would have had each one as a friend. So the school did something right- I still have 3 buddies from high school. Academically, with a B- average I was just about at the bottom of my class. What does all this mean? Who knows?

About acting white-- that african americans who do well are punished by their peers- why call it acting white if one does well- my African American students lashed out at me this week-- assumed Max Weber was a racist- When I told them that a black man was the source of his thought of studying the protestant ethic and that Weber and this man were friends, they still thought I was a racist- so much for trying to overcome reverse discrimination.

Goldstein, 2009

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Valpey

I am surprised that the figure they calculated was only 2%. To me, this is more likely to reinforce the position that nothing about social life in high school really matters down the road.

James Roche

Another question to be raised on the sample would be whether the sourcing of subjects from a small-economy state like Wisconsin would reflect the same outcome as someone who went to high school in Long Island, NY, Seattle, WA, or San Francisco, CA.

When success is measured largely by prominence in a local economy, I don't doubt that personal contacts enable advancements that would otherwise be harder to make. In cities where there is competition from a migratory, high-earning workforce, the benefits of high school popularity that would emerge would presumably be less of the 6-degree nepotism and more of what would be attributed to those with a sense of socially-adaptible people skills.

ZZ

I think this is only an advantage up to a point. People who's primary job skill is gladhanding may earn more in prosperous times, but in a downturn, when companies shed jobs, they are going to keep their people with hard skills and real productivity a lot longer than the people that are skating through on the force of their personality.

Steve

Co-relation doesn't equate wth causality. I believe the real link is due to looks. Both have an impact on the other attributes. Good looking people are more popular in school and have better job prospects later in life, because they find it much easier to be hired, initially and subsequently get promoted. This is the real link.

To assume the link you discuss, one would have to believe that employers have an interest in whether you were popular in school, when the real factor they are looking for is readily apparent to them.

Harry Beckwith

Two percent is very weak, considering that most people would read the expression "extra close friends" to comprise a very small group of "close friends", and an even more select group of mere "friends."

It's almost certain that those the more sociable group would average say $2,200,000 in their lifetime and the less sociables would average $2,155,000, simply because the less sociables include the acutely shy, sociopaths, charmless people and others who bring down the number.

And of course, we only get a view of the group, not the individuals. The less sociables may disproportionately include uniquely successful and uniquely unsuccessful people. Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs, to name three, weren't popular. Kobe Bryant has no known friends. It could be that hugely successful people actually have had relatively few extra close friends, but that. . .

No, let me summarize: Being likeable is generally a good thing. It may make a small difference in your income. It may not.

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Jason

compelling, so adolescent accumulation of close relations has cost beneficial effects later in life BUT in 'marginal' communities (black as stated in this blog) they seem to correlate with increased isolation (with the obvious if not cliche correlation of increased responsibility on the 'under performing' black students.

I think this applies to non-racial situations, especially when a friend of mine was 'advised' to only work at 80% of his full potential once in the job place, either as a protective strategy when work will and always does increase or to not threaten those currently working at sub-par levels. It would seem this deliberate work pace has everything to do with the visibilities of available opportunities and incentives for success (often not made apparent in black communities).

if the 2% increase in salary is based on the number of 'close friends' then I would assume an implicit skill set with a common goal is compounded. But would this mean that these close friends imply trust or at least the popular student to be capable of imparting trust to his new associates which in highly competitive fields fosters an alliance?

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jonathan

Thank you.

Unsurprising result since "cognitive ability" is a restrictive and controversial measure and "popularity" would be a cognitive measure under at least some of the multiple intelligences ideas. The study actually may say that; a quick read says to me that after controlling for "cognitive ability" they had this measurable effect and that might be taken by the multiple intelligences community as a rough but effective measure of the effect of that additional form of intelligence. (And of course an evolutionarily oriented researcher would then say the family factors show the trait is inherited.)

asdlkjhfs

Sounds like most of the males in this survey might have been in marketing or PR where this theory would certainly apply. It seems like most office, corporate jobs don't require rocket scientists so I can see how this theory applies to most jobs in America.

Wonder if how this same theory applies to engineers, physicists, chemists, doctors?

HardyW

College dorm-floor-mates and I were aware of our high school class officers as being more likely to go the townie route and never leave home, and wind up working service jobs. This was across a few states that fed onto that dorm floor. Not that HS class officers are necessarily popular, depending on voter turnout for those elections...

Jack

I think it's all about proficiency. The better you are at something, the more in demand you will be and the less your “likeability” matters. The bottom line is that if you're average, it's probably in your best interest to be likeable and make lots of connections. If you possess some unique skill set, you most likely won't need many close relationships to succeed.

Philippe Castagner

The basic research question posed to the subjects is way off. Asking people to name their three "closest friends" does not measure popularity, but rather, the development of meaningful relationships. The "popular" kids are not necessarily the ones who form the tightest bonds with others, but rather those who occupy positions in the social order most envied by those who occupy different positions, and who therefore received increased social attention from those seeking to bask in the reflected glory.

Someone who is able to "connect" with others, even given limited contact, would most definitely have a 2% or more advantage over a colleague equally matched in all other regards.