Who Wants to Be a Nerd?

Dr. Jennifer Riedl Cross & Conor O’Neill

In a poster presentation at the 2011 Society for Research in Child Development conference, Jennifer Riedl Cross, CFGE Director of Research, and school psychology graduate student Conor O’Neill reported on a surprising finding from a study of adolescent crowds. In the study, 515 high school students were asked to describe their crowd memberships from a list of 10 crowd names (Jocks, Preps, Farmers, Druggies, Band, Emo, Punk, Goth, Smart/Nerd, and Normals), including how important belonging to the crowd was to them. Thirty percent (154 students) said they were members of the Smart/Nerd crowd, even though it ranked fairly low in status in theschool (7th out of the 10 crowds). The unexpected finding was that quite a few students said they were not crowd members, but it was important for them to belong. Every crowd had some of these wannabes – even the Druggies had 5 – but the crowd with the most wannabes was the Smart/Nerd crowd and these were nearly all girls. Of the 24 students who felt it was important to be in this crowd, but they weren’t, 17 were girls.

Evidence abounds that there is a stigma associated with being identified as gifted(1,5) and girls are more likely than boys to view their academic abilities as having a negative impact on social acceptance and deny such abilities(2,4). One possible explanation for the female Nerd wannabes is that they are uncomfortable being seen as smart by their peers. Swiatek (3) has found that many identified gifted students have different coping strategies for dealing with the stigma of giftedness. Keeping these strategies from damaging students’ psychological adjustment and school success is a job for parents, counselors and teachers. Adolescence is a time when students are trying to figure out who they are. Although it seems counterintuitive, school is not always a place where gifted children feel welcome. Encouraging a whole-school attitude of respecting academic achievement and inclusiveness of all kinds of characteristics, including ability level, can ensure that students will feel good about being recognized for their hard work as scholars.

Dr. Jennifer Riedl Cross, Director of Research







1. Cross, T. L., Coleman, L. J., & Terhaar-Yonkers, M. (1991). The social cognition of gifted adolescents in schools: Managing the stigma of giftedness. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15, 44-55.

2. Kerr, B., Colangelo, N., & Gaeth, J. (1998). Gifted adolescents’ attitudes toward their giftedness. Gifted Child Quarterly, 32, 245-247.

3. Swiatek, M. A. (2001). Social coping among gifted high school students and its relationship to self-concept. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30, 19-39.

4. Swiatek, M. A., & Dorr, R. M. (1998). Revision of the social coping questionnaire: Replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 10, 252-259.

5. Tannenbaum, A. J. (1962). Adolescent attitude toward academic brilliance. New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.