Popular at school, prosperous in life?

Does your social status at school determine your success in life?
Does your social status at school determine your success in life? 

Does being well liked at school make a difference later on in life? Apparently so, according to a new paper.

Election season is in full swing at my local primary school. Aspiring school captains, house captains and prefects are touting their credentials on posters and in speeches in a bid to win the vote of their fellow students. There's a rumour one ambitious student has been rehearsing a stump speech for weeks. But convincing oratory probably won't be as important in the ballot as something far more intangible: popularity.

A team of economists have investigated whether being well liked at school makes any difference later in life. And guess what? Those who were popular in the playground are likely to earn more money during their working life.

The four economists - Gabriella Conti, from the University of Chicago, and Gerrit Mueller, from the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg, along with Andrea Galeotti and Stephen Pudney from the University of Essex - used a unique survey and some slick economic modelling to assess the economic gains from popularity later in life.

The paper, titled Popularity and published last week by America's National Bureau of Economic Research, showed a ''popularity premium'' lasted for many decades after school.

To examine the long-term effects of school popularity the economists used detailed information on high school friendship relations collected from respondents to the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study - a long-term survey of more than 10,000 men and women who graduated from high schools in the American state of Wisconsin in 1957.

Those who were popular in the playground are likely to earn more money during their working life.

One of the questions respondents were asked was to list friends from their senior class in high school. Some students received many friendship nominations, showing a high social standing and popularity among schoolmates, while others got very few. This allowed the researchers to create a measure for popularity using the number of friendship nominations received from schoolmates. The survey then tracked individuals' economic success in the labour market 35 years after finishing high school. This allowed the researchers to develop an economic model to show the relationship between a respondent's popularity at school and adult earnings.

The economists found those who nominated lots of friends at school - described by the researchers as gregarious - gained no advantage in the labour market. But those who were nominated as a friend by many other students - that is the most popular - were likely to earn more.

In fact, each additional friendship nomination in high school was associated with a 2 percent higher wage 35 years later. That might not sound like much, but it is equivalent to about half the benefit an individual typically gains from an extra year of education, the economists say.

The researchers went a step further and used their economic model to see what happens when they turned a ''social reject into a star''. The results were stark - when somebody was shifted from the bottom 20 per cent of the school popularity distribution to the top 20 per cent, they could be expected to have a 10 per cent wage advantage after 35 years. The study found that the early family environment, school composition and school size all played an important role in shaping friendship networks. Those educated in larger schools also had significantly higher friendship levels.