Questionnaire

As an adult, you probably feel more pride than anxiety if someone calls you a “stats nerd” or a “movie geek.” But for middle-school children, being dubbed a geek or a nerd is still, for the most part, horrifying. In fact, evidence indicates that such epithets lead children to underachieve purposely to avoid these labels, according to child clinical psychologist David Anderegg, PhD, author of “Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them” (Penguin, 2007).

Anderegg is urging psychologists and educators to rid American popular culture and conversation of such harmful stereotypes, because they may be quashing students’ interest in science and math.

The Monitor talked with Anderegg, a psychology professor at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt., — whose work was covered in The New York Times technology blog — about his mission to stop nerd labeling and how psychologists can help.

What made you want to study the notion of nerds?

As a clinical psychologist who works with children, one of the most common problems I’m confronted with is school failure. I see children who have all sorts of talent, and then all of a sudden their grades start to plummet. When I talk to them, I’ve found that a lot of it has to do with anxiety about being labeled a geek or nerd. Kids would say that they knew perfectly well how well they could do in school, but they were afraid of being labeled in this really negative way.

When do those stereotypes come into play, and where do they come from?

It happens around seventh or eighth grade, precisely the time when kids are making decisions that might support them later on in advanced study in math and science. They learn it from older kids, but they also learn it from [adults and educators]. I have been appalled at the number of educated grown-ups who freely say nerd or geek with an intonation that tells kids this is a really bad thing.

For example, one woman I know was bragging to me about her grandson and how smart he was and well he did in school. But, she said, “He’s not a nerd.” She made it sound like she was describing something really disgusting. That’s a powerful message, and kids are confused by that. It’s easy for them to take away the message that we don’t want them to be that good in school. Good, but not a nerd. Good, but not excellent.

What does the research say about how these terms affect children?

I expected to find tons of work on whether anti-intellectual stereotypes affect kids’ school performance in math and science, and there was nothing. I decided that’s probably because the prejudice is so self-evident that nobody thinks they need to look into it. I found just two studies, one conducted in Great Britain and one in Germany, which looked at whether nerd and geek stereotypes cause kids to be less interested in science and math and the answer was, of course, yes. But we haven’t really looked into that in this country.

Any areas in particular in which psychologists should do more research?

Yes, there are lots of research ideas ripe for the picking. Media exposure is a good one. Psychologists have done tons of research in the last few decades on whether exposure to violent media makes children more violent. There are also some studies on whether sexual media portrayals make people more sexually active early. The question of whether exposure to anti-intellectual media makes kids less interested in school is right in line with those other questions. There’s also very little on how people acquire these stereotypes, how it affects their decisions about what to study, and on what potentially protects some kids from acquiring these stereotypes.

What strategies do you use in your practice to help children or teens who are struggling with these labels?

I try to disequilibrate these kids, to get them to challenge their deeply held assumptions with questioning that throws them off balance. I ask them to describe a nerd or geek they know. They will describe a kid who is good in science or math and they will say, “He wears a pocket protector and stuff like that.” And I’ll say, “Really? Think about it. Because I haven’t seen any living being with a pocket protector, except in the movies, for 20 years.” And frequently they will say, “No, come to think of it, he doesn’t.”

When these kids start to think about that, sometimes they are really taken aback. They start to realize they have been looking at another kid as a cartoon and not as a person, and I think that’s important and useful. Kids really respond to it, especially kids in middle school. They don’t want to think of themselves as prejudiced.

When should we begin addressing anti-intellectual stereotypes?

I’ve been working with people who are looking at middle-school kids as the target population, when math starts to get harder and kids start to think of themselves as either a math person or not, often because of these stereotypes.

I have been critical of some of the policy changes people have come up with for trying to encourage kids to pursue careers in science and math and engineering, because so many of those initiatives happen at the college level. You can’t decide to become an engineer if it requires X number of years of calculus that you never took in high school. It’s ridiculous.

Is a mindset change in our future?

Cultural change requires massive intervention, and I don’t think it’s going to change overnight. There has been interest in my book among people who do science education, and I do a lot of consulting with schools and talking with teachers and parents about these stereotypes. Cultural change happens very slowly, but it has to start someplace.