Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Nerds Grow Up

I wrote a post, Socially-Inept Scientists, some time ago about how scientists as a group might be less socially adept than the wider population.  It seemed to strike a chord with readers and is the top-visited post.  I followed up with a poll, which has been running for about 30 weeks, to determine how scientists vs. non-scientists view themselves in terms of social aptitude (see nav bar to right).

My earlier statement was not meant to imply that scientists are all lacking in social skills or to impugn those scientists who (like me) tend to be introverted.  It was based more on my belief that scientists are often intensely focused on their work, a characteristic that often goes along with social awkwardness.  Not always, but enough to be noticeable.  In fact, our society has adopted a widely-used term to describe such people: nerds.  The definition of a "nerd" is "an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit" Wikepedia. The description goes on to say "Nerds are generally considered to be awkward, shy and/or unattractive by most, although this is not always true."

When I was growing up in the 1950's, the terms used to describe such people were "drips", "squares", or "brains".  These names were applied to those of us who made good grades and were interested in certain subjects that most everyone else found to be strange, complicated, and/or boring (science, math, physics).  These are all derogatory terms that stereotype people, of course, and those branded with such a name were often the target of bullies. Nerd girls can be particularly vulnerable, as depicted in the film "Welcome to the Dollhouse".

We were not in the popular crowd, were not "cool", and typically existed at the margins of our teenage social web. We were often not very physically attractive or graceful (hence we did not date much and avoided sports).  A few of us who had "normal" siblings or who managed to make friends with one of the "in crowd" were sometimes more readily accepted by our peers. 

What happens to nerds when they grow up?  Answer: they often become adult nerds.  Some, like Bill Gates, go on to become multi-billionaires, but still never shed their nerdy persona.  That's why those commercials featuring a "cool" guy (Hi, I'm a Mac) and a nerdy guy who looks a lot like Gates (Hi, I'm a PC) are so spot-on.  One of these commercials, in case you missed this ad campaign by Apple, even pokes fun at the PC (nerd's) inability to communicate (with an attractive female):

So even Bill Gates, with all his success, is still depicted as a socially awkward person (although I doubt he stays awake at night worrying about this).  In spite of the mean spirited theme of these commercials, most people find them amusing, especially Mac owners (a number of ad campaigns revolve around stereotypes or parodies of stereotyping, e.g., the Geico caveman commercials).

Anyway, all those other nerds in high school grew up and many became scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.  Some, like me, overcame our social awkwardness (more or less).  Others did not or even got worse.  Of course, there were those who were not "nerds" growing up, but also became scientists.  The point is that the scientist population receives a lot of those people who were "nerds" in childhood. Their single-mindedness and intense interest in intellectual topics predisposes them for careers in STEM fields. They are certainly less likely to become social workers or politicians.

Which brings us to the poll.  The results are quite interesting (if unscientific).  Note that many more scientists voted than non-scientists, so we must take these findings with a grain of salt, so to speak.  Most of you (scientists and non-scientists) seem to be Impostors, i.e., socially awkward, but can fake social aptitude. In both cases, about 36% of respondents checked this category.  Another 8 to 10% selected other socially-challenged categories (Wallflower and Social Outcast).  More scientists (43%) than non-scientists (28%) selected one of the top two categories (Social Butterfly and Congenial Comrade). The third category, Split Personality, which should be considered in the socially-inept group, was selected by 11% of scientists and 22% of non-scientists.

So, what does this say about the social aptitude of scientists? Well, first, it's clear that over half of you (55%) think you have some problems.  The other half think you are socially adept. Second, the pattern for scientists is fairly similar to that of non-scientists, with minor differences.  This outcome suggests that the social skills of scientists are similar to that of the wider population.  However, it's possible that the half who think they are socially-adept are over-estimating their social skills and the half who think they are socially-challenged are under-estimating their skills.  We would have to poll your friends and colleagues to see if they agree with your self-assessment. 

I found it most interesting that the majority of both scientists and non-scientists selected the Impostor choice.  I added that category at the last moment, because as I was making up the choices I realized that none of the categories was what I would select for myself.  In other words, Impostor is the category that best fits me. It's especially interesting in light of the recent posts I've written about the "impostor phenomenon", which women more than men tend to experience.  Even though that's about feelings of inadequacy about one's professional skills, it could also encompass social skills.

I don't think we can make too much more out of the poll, given its limitations. But it was fun to see how people responded.  I'll leave it up to those who study these things to tell us whether scientists on average differ from the rest of the world in social aptitude.  In the meantime, if you are feeling socially-challenged, especially in professional settings, you can reread the original post, which has some suggestions that might help.

I'll be moving the poll to the bottom of the page after this post.  Thanks to everyone who voted!

Image Credit: Modified image and a video from a commercial by TBWA\Media Arts Lab for Apple Inc.

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