Nerds of a Feather

By Jeffrey Kluger
Sep 1, 1993 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:20 AM


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If I had to be a country, I definitely wouldn’t want to be Norway. And most people, I bet, would feel the same way.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Norway, you understand. With the exception of the Vikings--Norse pirates who plundered the European coast during the eighth century and then went on to lose four Super Bowls--Norwegians have always been a friendly, industrious people. Located halfway above and halfway below the Arctic Circle, Norway is a giant in the cutting-edge industries of luge technology and snow- blower science and leads the world in the production of exotic cities with strange vowels in their names, like Tromsø, Vadsø, Bodø, Chicø, Zeppø, and Harpø.

The problem with Norway is that as countries go, it’s a bit drab, a bit flat, a bit, well, nerdish. The joke passed around the back fences of the European neighborhood has long been that the definition of Euro-hell is a place where Italy runs the trains, England does the cooking, and Norway is in charge of providing the entertainment. Surrounded by such dynamic, bustling lands as Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium, Norway is roundly regarded by its continental peers as the sort of Don Knotts of nations--the kind of country that’s always hoping for the chance to carry Iceland’s books home, but keeps getting tripped by Romania every time it tries. At most high-level UN meetings, Norway can be seen running down the hall after countries like France and Japan, saying things like, Hey fellas, wait up, or Can I get a ride with you guys? Generally, however, Norway just winds up stuck at a cafeteria table with Belize and Turkmenistan, where it has to give away its chocolate pudding to Libya so it can avoid getting beaten up.

It may be some consolation to Norway that nerds seem to be on the rise. As more and more people have embraced the ethos of the self-help movement, as more and more therapists have begun practicing the I’m-OK- You’re-OK-Even-If-You-Do-Wear-Black-Socks-With-Sandals theory of recovery, more and more nerds--as well as dweebs, weenies, and the occasional Young Republican--have come stumbling out of the closet. Indeed, beginning with the emergence of the perversely fashionable Elvis Costello in the 1970s and the charismatic computer hacker of the 1980s, a geek chic has been slowly blossoming. Nowadays there are nerd athletes, like bespectacled ex-Chicago Bear Mike Singletary, who looks less like an NFL All-Pro than an insurance salesman (albeit an insurance salesman who can eat a Buick Riviera for breakfast); nerd politicians, like Senator Paul Simon of Illinois (Give me liberty or give me a handsome pair of lace-up Hush Puppies); and even nerd astronauts, like space-sick shuttle passenger Jake Garn (That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for BLAAT!).

But even as the dweeb tidal wave spreads, questions remain. What is the origin of nerds? Where did they come from? Did nerds rise naturally from the primordial soup like other species, or did they just spill it on their Ban-Lon shirts? Are nerds a result of the little-known Newtonian dictum, Objects in Bermuda shorts tend to remain in Bermuda shorts, or do they--like the biomechanics of bumblebee flight and the unaccountable popularity of Julio Iglesias--simply defy scientific explanation?

Happily, some of these questions may at last have answers, thanks to social psychologist Randall Osborne of Indiana University. For years Osborne, a self-described recovering nerd, has been teaching college courses in personality and self-esteem development. Recently he decided to expand the scope of his work to include a topic in which he has always felt a deep personal investment: the psychological, sociological, and anthropological roots of the nerd personality.

Personalities that we think of as nerds have been with us throughout the ages, Osborne says. In some respects, they are even in evidence in the animal kingdom. Nerdiness can be a remarkably universal trait.

The first step in recognizing the nerd personality is defining just what it is. Long before there were filmstrip projectors, Esperanto clubs, and coin-collecting magazines, there were nerds to run them, join them, and subscribe to them. Nobody is sure when the first proto-nerd appeared in the human evolutionary family, but most anthropologists believe it was quite early. For every knuckle-walker capable of tool use, there must have been someone who kept hitting his thumb with his hammer. For every Arctic tribe that mastered the art of stitching animal pelts together, there must have been someone who needed mitten clips. For every advanced community that learned the rudiments of rhythm and music, there must have been someone humming Barry Manilow.

A nerd is essentially anyone who at some point or other in his life has felt out of place, says Osborne. It could have to do with your physical appearance, your particular skills and talents, or a number of other things. Any time you deviate even slightly from the ideal, you run the risk of being labeled a nerd.

The initial step in assigning nerd labels within a community usually comes when dominance hierarchies are established. In human beings and in animals as diverse as wolves, walruses, and chimps, the job of determining dominance--largely through threat displays and fights--occupies a lot of time and energy, says Osborne. What most people don’t understand about dominance dynamics, however, is that they benefit not only the winners but the losers. Bigger, stronger animals establish themselves as leaders of the pack and make it clear that they’re too powerful to be challenged; weaker animals establish themselves as subordinate and make it clear that--for the time being at least--they’re too unthreatening to be bothered with. By establishing their places within the community, both the heroes and the nerds thus protect themselves from future attack.

While any species with a dominance hierarchy can give rise to its share of nerds, the ones with perhaps the greatest annual geek output are those that conduct their mating rituals in what animal behaviorists refer to as leks. Leks are spontaneous groupings of reproductive-age males that serve as the animal world’s version of a college fraternity--though the animals typically have neater rooms and higher grade point averages. During mating season, lekking males congregate for a sort of group scuffle during which they divide up the territory that is available for wooing females that year. Typically, only a small handful of the largest males will win any territory--and thus get to do all the mating--while the others will turn tail, slip quickly away, and confide to one another that, aaah, they really wanted to start a stamp club anyway. Though there is no immediate reproductive advantage for the losers in beating such a hasty retreat, there is some benefit down the line. By breaking off a no-win battle, the subordinate males minimize the risk that they will be injured or killed, and maximize the chance that they will have a spot in next year’s lek-- perhaps even advancing to the championship round.

For human beings, the nerd personality can emerge well before the mating equivalent of the NCAA finals. As anyone who was ever labeled a nascent nerd in his first year or two of grammar school can tell you, it’s never too early to earn your first dweeb merit badges. My initial brushes with my own--comparatively mild--nerdiness occurred when I was in second grade and was cast as the lead in the class’s springtime play. Ordinarily this selection conferred great prestige on the lucky seven-year-old who had been chosen. The play we were performing the year I was the star, however, was entitled The Monarch Butterflies, and I, to my horror, was cast as Mr. Monarch--opposite Lori Cohen in the coveted role of Mrs. Monarch. Most of my recollection of the event has mercifully faded, though I do recall that the opening scene required me to run onstage wearing a pair of orange-and- black coat-hanger wings and recite the immortal lines: The lake is clear, the sky is blue, Mrs. Monarch, Mrs. Monarch, where are you? My reputation as an unreconstructed dweeb was instantly established and soon became so widespread that by the next year, foreign exchange students from as far away as Laos were applying to the Baltimore school system just to get a glimpse of me.

Though it provided me little comfort at the time, Osborne insists that, like the dominance hierarchies that get established when animals reach mating age, such preadolescent geek labeling is also common throughout the animal community. Early play among young animals, he explains, is usually a rehearsal for later, more serious adult relationships.

Individuals who get established as weak or different in childhood games run the risk of losing dominance early and perhaps never recovering. Anything that makes you question your own abilities can lead to a nerdlike loss of confidence and stature, Osborne says. And nothing makes you question your own abilities more than when the people around you start questioning them.

Of course, as any parent of a toddler--or at least any brutally honest parent of a toddler--can tell you, sometimes nerd personalities manifest themselves even before a child starts school. But just how early has never been clear. At what point does the geek gene begin expressing itself? Does the incipient nerd read The Cat in the Hat and want to know if the hat comes with earflaps? Does he watch Sesame Street and worry about whether the street is zoned for commercial development? At what point did Sam Nunn know he was in trouble? At what point did Mr. and Mrs. Sedaka realize that Neil would not be playing pro ball? Research suggests that it can all happen faster than anyone ever imagined--perhaps within the first year of life.

Osborne cites experiments in which human babies and several different types of animals were observed by researchers as they looked at their own reflections in a mirror. As most pet owners know, when kittens and puppies first encounter their reflections, they usually respond with slightly less intelligence than the average veal chop, barking or meowing furiously and batting at the glass to get at the intruder. Ultimately, however, this behavior stops, either because the animal learns that the image is merely a reflection of itself, or because the owner threatens to replace it with a far more perceptive potted palm.

To determine just what is really going on in front of the mirror, experimenters conducted studies in which they showed dogs, cats, orangutans, baboons, and human children their reflections, then took them aside and applied a spot of rouge to their foreheads. They then returned the subjects to the mirror and looked to see how they responded. If the babies or animals appeared not to notice the rouge, or reached out to touch the reflection of the spot, the experimenters concluded that they did not understand that the image they saw in the glass was an image of themselves. If, however, they responded by reaching up to touch the rouge spot on their own foreheads (or by requesting something in a pastel peach with just the teensiest bit of frosting), the researchers concluded that they had indeed grasped the concept of reflection and, more important, the concept of self. In nearly all the sessions, the adult dogs and cats never made the connection, the adult orangutans and baboons almost always did, and baby humans usually did--provided they were over ten months old.

The experiment was one of the first to suggest that the ten- month-old human is capable of understanding that it is a discrete individual, Osborne says. Once this understanding develops, personality develops with it. And once that happens, experiences we have with a sibling or a playmate or a parent can get our character moving in nearly any direction, including the nerd direction.

As the majority of nerds know, once you embark on the dweeb path- -whether in babyhood or later--you usually stay on it straight through adulthood. Osborne is especially intrigued by a survey conducted by psychologist William Swan of the University of Texas. Swan interviewed dozens of husbands and wives, exploring how self-esteem and marital bliss (or lack thereof) were intertwined. Osborne thinks the research is rich with nerdy implications, although Swan probably didn’t realize it at the time. Swan used a questionnaire to determine if husbands and wives in his study had a negative or positive impression of the husband in such nerd- related areas as social skills, athletic skills, and physical attractiveness, Osborne says. He then had both members of the couple fill out questionnaires designed to determine how committed they were to their marriage. Surprisingly, he found that when men had negative, nerd images of themselves they were more committed to their marriages if their wives shared that opinion of them, and less committed if their wives thought more highly of them.

Why husbands with low self-esteem would feel any special connection to wives who also hold them in low regard was not readily apparent to me (though in a world in which Ernest Borgnine can wed Ethel Merman, anything goes), but Osborne believes the answer is obvious. Just like the animals who preserve their submissive position in a herd for the protection it offers, human beings seek the security found in social definition. Even if the definition they get is a bad one, it’s better than none at all.

So if the nerd life-style has so many secondary gains, is there any hope for the lifelong dweeb? Can the nerd who’s truly not happy with the prospect of a future spent in insurance seminars and countywide Scrabble championships ever change his stripes (or for that matter, his polyester plaids)? Certainly, not all confirmed nerds suffer their geekiness gladly, and most make at least occasional attempts to break free of their dweeb persona. During high school I briefly competed for the position of placekicker on the varsity football team but was edged out on what amounted to a technicality when the other contenders proved better at such incidental skills as running, punting, tackling, and aiming the ball at a spot within the same time zone as the goalposts. Later I tried for a less athletic redemption from nerdiness and ran for treasurer of the student council. To my great surprise, I actually won the election, but to my great disappointment, the victory did little to improve my less than swashbuckling image. (As I soon discovered, there are very few high school girls who will run up to their friends in the cafeteria and happily sigh, I just met the dreamiest comptroller!)

With persistence, however, an active nerd can become an erstwhile nerd. Osborne says his own recovery began when he first came to understand the dynamics of dominance hierarchies and realized that the nerd status he had attained as a child did not have to stay with him for life. People only intimidate other people so they can elevate themselves, he says. Once you realize that, you stop believing that you deserve the intimidation and start feeling better about yourself. For people who want to see results faster, Osborne has other answers. In his seminars, he preaches the teachings of psychologist Bernard Weiner of UCLA. Weiner (all right, all right, he didn’t choose the name) believes that anyone suffering a self-confidence problem (nerds included) must be taught to view social failures or setbacks less as a result of permanent, personal shortcomings and more as a result of current circumstances that can be changed tomorrow. Osborne thinks this technique can help even the most egregious geek regain enough self-confidence to leave the nerd life behind.

Of course, the question that never gets answered in all of this is, should we want to leave the nerd life behind? The final paradox of all dweebishness is that the earnest, academic awkwardness that can earn you the most derision during your formative years may pay the biggest dividends later in life. So maybe Steven Jobs secretly liked Tony Orlando and Dawn back in college; maybe Bill Gates thought he looked good in Sansabelt slacks; maybe Sir Alexander Fleming was indeed the president of his high school Mold Club--and darned proud to hold the post. Wouldn’t inventing the Apple computer, founding Microsoft, or discovering penicillin later in life be at least a small consolation for never making JV soccer? Still, if you’ve gotten to the point that you look in the mirror and see less Mel Gibson than Hoot Gibson, less General Eisenhower than David Eisenhower, less Harrison Ford than Edsel Ford, you may want to rethink your style. Allowing yourself a little nerdiness is one thing, but you don’t want to be an utter Bøzø.

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