Different groups navel-gaze in different ways. Broadway musical writers write a bunch of musicals about what it’s like to be on Broadway. Poets write a bunch of poems about writing poetry. Philosophers speculate on how philosophy may be the most truly virtuous activity. Psychoanalysts analyze the heck out of the inner mental experience of psychoanalyzing someone.
All this leaves me a little surprised that there isn’t more scientific study of nerds.
And yet there is not. Typing “nerd” into Google Scholar brings up only a series of papers on desert plants by one Dr. A. Nerd, who must have had a very unpleasant childhood. The field remains strangely unexplored.
“Nerds” seem to share a bunch of seemingly uncorrelated characteristics. They’re generally smart. They’re interested in things like math and science, especially the hard sciences like physics. They’re shy and awkward. They’re some combination of bad at getting social status and not interested in getting social status. They’re especially bad at getting other people to show romantic interest in them. They’re physically unimposing and bad at sports. They don’t get in physical fights and are very unlikely to solve problems with violence. They’re straightedge and less likely to drink or smoke to excess (according to legend, “nerd” derives from “knurd”, ie “drunk” spelled backwards). Sometimes even very specific physical characteristics make the list, like a silly-sounding high-pitched voice.
A scientific study of nerds might begin by asking: why do all of these things go together in the popular imagination, form a single category?
Of these nine classic characteristics, we can imagine people scoring either “nerdy” or “anti-nerdy” on each. If that were true, there’s only a 1/2^9 = 1/512 chance that any given person has all of these characteristics. Our null hypothesis might be that “nerd” is just a made-up category used to describe this totally coincidental group of 1/512th of the population, or those people who are sufficiently close (maybe 6 or 7 out of 9?). Could be.
The other possibility is that in fact these traits are all correlated for some reason, and people who are bad at sports really are more likely to enjoy math, less likely to drink or use violence, et cetera. “Nerd” would then be a natural category, in the same way that, for example, “bird” is a natural category pointing out that animals with feathers are more likely to have wings, beaks, et cetera rather than a totally random distribution of traits. Why would that be?
Have there been nerds across different times and cultures? The term was only coined in the mid-20th century. But Isaac Newton seems to have been a nerd. Whatever else he was, Henry Cavendish was at the very least a nerd. On the other hand, some of the Europeans I’ve talked to say that the experience of nerdiness on their side of the Atlantic is very different from the American experience, so much that it’s hard to interpret them as having a “nerd” concept at all. From my time in Japan, the experience there is different as well.
One can sort of imagine how certain of the correlated characteristics might cause others. Young people who are small and weak and bad at sports might lose social status as a result. People who are good at math might be so transfixed by the mysteries of the universe that things like sports and socializing and dating pale in comparison. People who are very smart might, for the usual neurological reasons, also have high impulse control, explaining the lack of drug use and aggression. People who are bad at social skills might not get invited to sports games and so have no opportunity to improve; they might take up unpopular but solitary pursuits like math as a result.
Or we could take the fun route and go full biodeterminist. The connection to autism and Asperger syndrome is so commonly cited (despite a lack of any real scholarly investigation) as to be cliched. Anyone familiar with the full-fledged syndrome understands it’s something very different from everyday nerdiness, but the possibility that nerdiness is some very mild form or related condition probably shouldn’t be ruled out.
Or we could go a different route. Consider:
Testosterone is associated with extraversion, alone of Big Five characteristics.
Higher testosterone men have higher social status, and the cognitive role of testosterone has been described as “best understood in terms of the search for and maintenance of social status”.
As anyone who has watched the controversy over steroid use in professional sports knows, testosterone improves muscle mass and athletic performance.
Men with lower testosterone have lower mating success.
High testosterone is correlated with increased drinking behavior with p < .001.
Especially in prison populations, high testosterone is closely linked to violence and aggressive behavior.
So at least in men, low testosterone seems to cause most of the characteristics associated with nerdhood.
But I’m being unfair. There’s a lot of counterevidence as well.
There are so many conflicting studies on testosterone and intelligence that I despair of getting anything coherent. Many studies show increased testosterone increases intelligence, especially in tasks where men generally outperform women, like spatial rotation (which tends to correlate with math) – for example, see here. I respect this research, but I would naively expect, let’s say, brilliant mathematicians to have lower testosterone than the general population, just based on my stereotypes that testosterone is associated with aggressiveness, popularity, athleticism, etc. I’m not sure how this squares with the data.
Testosterone doesn’t actually make male faces more attractive, according to Testosterone increases perceived dominance but not attractiveness in human males.
Nerds are traditionally viewed as having high libido – think watching pornography. But of course high testosterone is associated with higher libido. I don’t know if there’s a cultural thing going on where nerds have normal-to-low libido but are stereotyped as having high libido to make fun of their lack of romantic success – or even whether the pornography connection is just that nerds are better with computers. I also note with interest that testosterone is said to affect sexual libido but not desire for “sensual touch”, and a lot of people have mentioned how anomalously some of the nerd communities I’m in tend to value cuddling compared to sex relative to the general population.
I could probably find other traditionally nerdy characteristics that correlated negatively with testosterone. For example, acne is associated with higher testosterone levels.
So I don’t think this is the whole picture.
But I still feel like it should be some of the picture. Sex hormones are really complicated – for example, there seem to be different effects from in utero sex hormone exposure compared to pre-pubertal sex hormone exposure compared to pubertal sex hormone exposure, and these aren’t necessarily correlated with each other in the same people. Estrogens can have effects ranging from very similar to testosterone to exactly the opposite. Testosterone is hard to get a good measurement from, especially with the no-fuss salivary measurements I bet most of these studies used, and its effects or lack thereof would depend on lots of stuff like how much of it gets converted to dihydrotestosterone. Also, some hormones have totally different effects if they come in short spikes versus constant gradual release. So there’s a lot of room to improve our understanding of sex hormones and start distinguishing between unlike constructs.
I am reminded of an observation common among transsexuals – and brought up in Ozy’s last post – that there is a distinct cluster of transwomen who have certain very traditionally-considered-male-gendered characteristics and are very nerdy. This seems like another example of some strongly male and strongly female characteristics anomalously going hand in hand.
And what about female nerds? If we’re trying to make this about testosterone, it sounds like they need a separate explanation. Is female nerd a distinct cluster in the same way male nerd is? I don’t know. I don’t, for example, have strong feelings about whether female nerds are more or less attractive/athletic/whatever compared to non-nerdy females.
Mostly I just feel like this field is strangely under-explored. Especially when you consider what the sorts of people who explore fields are like.