As We See It


Placebo buttons and hot girls in nerd glasses

Thick black glasses does not a nerd make.

The word “nerd” has gotten out of hand.

It all started with Myspace—with ridiculously hot girls describing themselves as “nerds.” As if. Build a time machine, go back to middle school, walk a mile in my shoes and then call yourself a “nerd.”

I don’t mind nerds co-opting the word “nerd” and turning it positive, the way gay people did with “queer.” That’s fine. That’s good. My issue is this: Now that nerdiness is desirable (on some level), everybody is claiming to be one. Showing up to Comic-Con, wearing nerd glasses at nightclubs. A Las Vegas cocktail server in thick black glasses does not a nerd make.

Keep that in mind. We’ll come back to it. And now a topic change:

A couple weeks back I read an essay by David McRaney about the “close” buttons on elevators. Turns out they don’t do anything.

“If you happen to find yourself pressing a non-functional close-door button,” McRaney writes, “and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

The fascinating essay on “placebo buttons” was an excerpt from McRaney’s new book, You are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, Buy Happiness and All The Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself. I’m 70 pages into it and not fascinated. McRaney jumps from topic to topic too quickly, and I’ve already read most of the described studies in other pop psychology books.

Anyway, the Less Dumb book jacket—and here’s where I connect things—calls McRaney a “self-described psychology nerd.”

This is a different problem. Judging by the author picture, McRaney might be an actual nerd. Which is great. But there’s no such thing as a psychology nerd. You can be a comic nerd or a Star Wars nerd, but you can’t just stick any word in front of nerd and have it be a thing. You can’t be a “cooking nerd” or a “law nerd” or a “makeup nerd.” Writing about psychology does not make you a “psychology nerd” any more than playing basketball makes you a “basketball nerd.”

Why am I so bent out of shape about this? About the girls in nerd glasses? I worry that we’re broadening the word and the whole concept of nerdiness out of existence. Or maybe I’m just being a linguistics nerd.

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