Field Guide to The Nerd: It's All Geek to Me
Nerds excel at systematic thinking, but are slow to intuit social nuances.
By Benjamin Nugent published July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
One day when Erik Charles Nielsen was in seventh grade, his teacher taught a lesson on time zones. The first thing you needed to know, said the teacher, was that the International Date Line was at 180 degrees longitude. "Not exactly," said Nielsen, piping up to interrupt the lesson. "It actually moves to avoid islands." After a 15-minute argument, Nielsen was escorted from the room—despite being correct.
Nielsen was one of those bright kids mystified by social conduct. It wasn't just the teachers. Other kids bullied him relentlessly. For all his brains and talent, he couldn't persuade his schoolmates to leave him be, let alone take him into their cliques. "I didn't have anything resembling a friend between third and 12th grade," says Nielsen, now 26 and a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles. He estimates he was sent home crying from school every two weeks.
Nielsen is a nerd—intellectually gifted but socially awkward. Nerds are good at thinking like machines, with pure reason, but less able to divine and follow non-rational rules. Nielsen's ability to analyze, figure out systems, and solve logical problems eventually helped get him into grad school, but it wasn't helpful for picking up unspoken guidelines of social behavior.
What causes someone to develop the nerd personality? Biology is partially responsible for creating what Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls a "systematizing brain," or "S-brain"—a brain good at figuring out logical rules. The opposite is an empathic brain; E-brains are good at divining what people are feeling, and people with E-brains develop sharper social skills. More men have S-brains than women, and more women have E-brains than men—though men and women both fall all over the spectrum.
People with autism, or its milder variant, Asperger's syndrome, are biologically disposed to have extreme S-brains. Nerds stand squarely on the S-brain side of the spectrum, but not necessarily enough to have Asperger's or autism. Some nerds have Asperger's, but not all. Nerdiness and Asperger's aren't the same thing, but they have a lot in common.
"Nerd" is a vernacular label, not a scientific one, but it's usually earned by a love for activities that are logical rather than sensual or physical—math, biology, or coding rather than cooking, ballet, or football. The leisure activities we associate with nerds—chess club, computer games, electronics projects in the garage—all depend on rational, systematic thinking, and tend not to involve emotionally nuanced conversation with other humans.
Parenting can also be a major factor in creating a nerd, says Mel Levine, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina. "It's the tastes they develop in their kids, the clothing and pursuits they pick for them," he says. But adults shouldn't force children to conform to middle-school social conventions. "There are a lot of depressed cool kids, and it's better to be a happy nerd than a popular anorexic," he says. "Nerdiness isn't a pathology."
Besides, nerds can learn social skills if they approach them with the same intellectual rigor they bring to calculus, says Lawrence Welkowitz, a psychologist at Keene State College. He's found that nerds can often master the subtleties of social interaction, compensating for disinclination with focus and practice. He runs a peer-mentoring program in which popular kids take nerds under their wing and give them tips on how to be cool. The exposure to the popular kids' world gives nerds a taste of social acceptance, which inspires them to keep working at it. But the socialization process isn't easy: At first, nerds tend to get more depressed as they get more social. "They realize it's hard, and they've been missing out on a lot," he says. "But eventually, they get more skilled."
While some argue that nerds simply have low emotional intelligence, Welkowitz says nerds can learn social skills just by getting more interested in emotions. "Nerds focus on special interests and unusual topics, usually to the exclusion of maintaining relationships and emotional life. They have different agendas than others, who tend to focus more on friendships, relationships, and social aspects of work." Once nerds grasp the rewards of having a fulfilling emotional life, says Welkowitz, they can succeed at building one.
Some nerds benefit just from watching daytime TV, says Daniel Rosenn, a psychiatrist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who often works with MIT students with social issues. "I've taken 30-second segments of soap operas with the sound off and said, 'Let's look at the tape and figure out what the people are feeling.' " A favorite exercise is evaluating the social skills of servers at ice cream shops. "It gets the kid to think, 'Wow, she seemed to have pretty bad eye contact, but if you were the customer, what could you do to make it go better?'" With younger kids, Rosenn sets up chairs like seats on a school bus and role-plays a bully to give them practice with retorts.
Sometimes the solution is nerd community. Nerd subcultures like the ones surrounding comic books and science fiction can be safe places for nerds to learn to make friends outside the brutal social hierarchies of school and the office. (Comic-Con, the largest annual nerd gathering, draws 175,000 fans of Gandalf and Wonder Woman to San Diego every summer.) "Those pastimes allow socially quirky people to engage in parallel play," says Welkowitz. "D & D allows somebody who's in their own head to stay within that geeky world but have others nearby." That's something nerds crave, he says, whether or not they can articulate it. "Even Einstein occasionally wanted to connect with people and have sex." —Benjamin Nugent
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Figure out the rules of socializing. Small talk, flirting, and job interviews all follow conversational templates. They aren't taught in school, but if you study them like a set of formulae, you'll find they're not rocket science.
Put yourself in others' shoes. Nerds have trouble getting out of their own heads. Instead of expecting others to bow to pure reason as computers do, figure out how they're feeling. If you take an interest in others' emotions, they respond better.
Stand up for yourself, but remain calm. If people throw insults at you, don't argue with them. Act composed, belittling them instead of engaging them. Nobody is going to respect you for being logical.