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The 12 high-school cliques that exist today, and how they differ from past decades

The pressure of getting into a top-tier college seems to have influenced the ways teenagers sort themselves into cliques.

Still from Mark Waters' 2004 film "Mean Girls"
  • Researchers conducted focus groups with students who recently graduated from high school to ask them about their experience with peer groups.
  • Altogether, the participants identified 12 distinct "peer crowds" and ranked them in a social hierarchy.
  • The results show that, compared to past decades, some groups have risen or fallen in the hierarchy, and a couple new groups have emerged.

How do modern high-school peer groups compare to the familiar cliques of past decades — jocks, stoners, brains? A new study explores that question and highlights a few new groups that have formed in the high-school social hierarchy, offering insights into adolescents' changing attitudes that stem, in part, from the increased pressure to obtain a college degree.

The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in December of 2018, come from a series of focus groups that researchers conducted with recently graduated and ethnically diverse students who were born between 1990 and 1997, and enrolled in one of two U.S. universities.

To get an idea of students' recent high-school experiences with peer groups, the researchers, working at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin, asked their focus groups to write down the various cliques that existed at their schools, and then to try to agree upon common groups that existed at all of the schools. After, the researchers asked the students questions, like:

  • Which groups was most popular?
  • How well did they do in school?
  • What kinds of clothes do they wear?
  • What race, gender, income are they?
  • How good looking are they?
  • Where do they hang out after school?
  • What do they do on weekends?

The students identified 12 general "crowds" in modern high schools: populars, jocks, floaters, good-ats, fine arts, brains, normals, druggies-stoners, emo/goths, anime-manga kids, and loners. The researchers also classified these crowds into two groups: conventional and counterculture, with "conventional crowds embracing the values typically rewarded by the U.S. educational system and counterculture crowds opposing and/or providing alternatives to them."

​Differences of modern cliques & the pressures of getting into college

In many ways, modern cliques seem to reflect the high-school peer groups of past generations. For example, the top of the modern social hierarchy is occupied by familiar and conventional crowds such as jocks, talented students and popular kids — not exactly a surprise.

However, the "brains" crowd, located in the middle of the social hierarchy, seemed to differ from past decades. Characterized by getting good grades, students often remarked how this crowd seemed overly consumed by academics and the desire to get into a top-tier college, a preoccupation not observed by past researchers.

"Participants identified academic anxiety in more specific terms, even suggesting that students in the 'brain' peer crowd 'were less mentally healthy' due to a fear of upsetting their parents," Rachel Gordon, lead study author and professor of sociology at UIC, told UIC Today.

Competition to get into good colleges seems to have shaken up the high-school hierarchy in other ways, too.

The fine arts crowd, for example, has been around for decades, but now it seems to be growing in status and prevalence, a rise the researchers attributed to the importance of participating in extracurricular activities for college admissions. Meanwhile, the researchers identified a new crowd: the so-called "good-ats," who, as the name implies, are well-rounded and exceed at academics, sports and extracurricular activities.

Of course, past generations had similar kinds of students — researchers called them "athlete-scholars" or "beautiful brains." But the good-ats differ from these groups, according to the researchers, because of their drive to achieve in several different fields at once. Again, the researchers suggested this drive likely reflects "the need for college-bound students to appear 'well-rounded' in college applications."

Another new group identified in the study is the anime/manga crowd, which participants characterized as "being unattractive, outlandish, and socially awkward."

"They probably wear clothing that represents video games and anime," said one participant. "Yeah, a lot of fandom stuff and cosplays [dressing as anime characters]," said another student. "Colored hair. . . . You have to have weird colored hair and headphones."

This group "resembled geeks, dorks, nerds, and dweebs in past U.S.-based studies," and their social life exists mainly online, the researchers noted.

​Low-status cliques reflect changing times

Photo credit: Jerry Kiesewetter via Unsplash

The study suggests lower-status crowds are more heavily influenced by current events, popular culture and social media. Gordon provided several examples of this apparent connection to UIC Today, among them:

  • The emergence of the "anime/magna" peer crowd, which she said is a modern-day incarnation of a classic "computer geek" crowd that is likely promoted by a sharing of cultures on the internet.
  • The "emo/goth" crowd, who share with past decades a focus on countercultural behaviors, but focus on today's music and aesthetics.
  • The expressed fear of "loners" as potential perpetrators of violence, something that Gordon described as "new and unique to adolescents today, potentially reflecting the prevalence of school shootings over the last 20 years."

White students perceive crowds differently

The study found that crowds at the top of the social hierarchy were often characterized as white, and that white students were likely to describe racial-ethnic crowds as monoliths, and they did so in "racially-coded language." However, students of color tended to observe much more variance within racial-ethnic groups, as one black student described:

"... there's so much variation. You have good-looking black people. You have not good-looking black people. You have smart black people and not so smart, you have healthy and then not healthy."

Students of color generally said that, unlike white students, they were inextricably tied to the members of their racial-ethnic group. Because of this, a 12th group was included in the researchers' new hierarchal pyramid. The researchers wrote:

"When students of color identified racial-ethnic crowds, they saw them as home bases to which they were automatically members, in a positive way. One focus group participant described how a student of color could not be 'completely in another group because they were in [a racial-ethnic] community by default [because] that's just who they are.'"

Why do cliques form?

Still from the 1993 Richard Linklater film "Dazed and Confused." Image source: Gramercy

Most people frame cliques in a negative light, and it's no wonder: They often lead to social exclusion and isolation, and also, in case you've never seen a Hollywood high-school movie, some pretty obnoxious behavior. Still, cliques are likely just a result of human nature — the desire to sort ourselves into groups for reasons of familiarity and certainty, control and dominance, and security and support, as Mark Prigg wrote.

Or, more simply, we form cliques because we want to surround ourselves with people like us, a preference that's as deep-rooted as "our anxieties about people who are different and our ambition for status within our community," as Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic.

In any case, studying cliques could help scientists and educators find ways to make schools safer and better places to learn.

"Adolescent peer crowds play an important role in determining short-term and long-term life trajectories on social, educational and psychological fronts," Gordon told UIC Today. "Understanding how adolescents navigate their environments and perceive themselves and others can help us advance research in many areas, from how we can successfully promote healthy behaviors, such as anti-smoking or safe sex messages, to how we develop effective curriculums or even mediate the effects of school shootings."

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Image source: Sereno, et al
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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

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This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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