Americans recall their membership in high school cliques

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
January 17, 2023, 7:53 PM GMT+0

High school can be a challenging time for many students as they navigate the social landscape and try to find their place among their peers. A recent YouGov poll asked Americans to reflect on their high school experiences, including which cliques existed at their schools and which they personally were a part of.

To identify the groups or cliques that were most common in American high schools across time and place, we first conducted a poll asking a nationally representative sample of Americans to tell us in their own words what cliques existed at their high schools growing up. The responses to this question informed the design of a second poll, which asked respondents closed-ended questions about the existence of cliques and their own membership in them.

To gauge which groups were most common in the high schools of American adults, we presented respondents with a list of 25 groups and asked them to select all that existed during their high school experience. The two most frequently selected groups — jocks/athletes and popular kids — were present in half of Americans' high schools, according to their recollections. At least one in three people said their high school had groups of cheerleaders, nerds, band or choir kids, loners, or stoners. Around a quarter said there were preppy kids, geeks, snobs, rich kids, or overachievers. One in five remember there being rebels, theater, kids, artsy kids, rednecks, religious kids, or hippies.

Has the presence of certain groups or cliques changed over time? Our survey finds that while some groups are roughly equally likely to be reported by Americans of varying ages — such as rich kids, overachievers, and rebels — other groups were more prevalent in some eras than others. For example, Americans 45 and older are far more likely than younger adults to say their high school had jocks/athletes, popular kids, and cheerleaders — but less likely to say it had skaters, goths, or emo kids.

Which high school groups or cliques do Americans consider themselves to have personally been a member of? To find out, we asked respondents to select all that they personally belonged to from a list of 25 groups. One in five said they weren't in any high school groups, and among those who were, the largest share said they were among the loners (14%). About one in 10 said they were either a band or choir kid, a popular kid, a jock or athlete, a nerd, or a stoner. All other groups were less likely to be selected.

— Matthew Smith, Carl Bialik, and Linley Sanders contributed to this article.

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: The poll was conducted among 2,000 U.S. adult citizens on two separate surveys conducted from November 21 - 27, 2022 and December 7 - 11, 2022, with each survey conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 2.5%.


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