Popular kids destined for success
Researchers in the US believe they have accomplished the fraught task of working out who the popular kids were at school, and then showing that popularity could be at least part of the reason for their success.
According to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in the US, 40 years after leaving high school, those among the most popular one-fifth of students earned 10 per cent more than those in the bottom one-fifth.
That was true after taking into account variables such as family background, school quality, cognitive ability and adult personality traits.
The research was based on the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) which followed around 10,300 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. To avoid difficulties caused by the lower rate of labour force participation among women of the WLS generation, the NBER working paper restricted its research to 4330 men.
The sample was broadly representative of white, non-Hispanic Americans who had completed at least a high school education, the NBER paper said.
Students in the WLS had been asked to list up to three people they considered their closest friends. Those who had their names written down the most were considered the most popular.
Popular students were more likely to come from a warm early family environment. Also relatively older and smarter students were more popular, with relative family income having only a small impact.
The authors of the NBER paper considered that the traits which made a student better-liked were similar to those which made people successful in the workplace.
A student's popularity among schoolmates was "a reflection of his skill in building positive personal and social relationships and adjusting to the demands of a social situation".
By the time people were in the workforce they needed to have acquired and developed appropriate social skills, such as understanding the "rules of the game" - how to gain acceptance and social support from colleagues, whom to trust and when to reciprocate.
"Thus, social interactions within the group of classmates provide the bridge to the adult world as they train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles," the paper said.
The researchers suggested their work could help improve outcomes for school students.
"While current research focuses on the eff ect of class size on cognitive achievement ... our results suggest that a deeper understanding of the eff ect of school size and composition on the development of social skills is needed," they said.
"Policies that focus on promoting integration in schools and on developing social competencies may be a fruitful way of promoting success in life."
While intelligence had long been emphasised as a major determinant of that success, there was mounting evidence of the importance of other social skills for a range of social, economic and health outcomes.
The paper contributed to the emerging literature on the relevance of social skills for economic success. Some of the difficulties in the meaning and measurement of those skills had been overcome by focusing on an objective measure of popularity.