In Praise of Jock Values

In Praise of Jock Values

If you grew up in North America, you’ve probably experienced the high school dichotomy of jocks vs. nerds: the first physically adept, but oafish, the second intellectually gifted but unathletic.[1]

You’re reading this post, so no offense, I’m going to assume you were the latter.

If you’re a nerd, jocks are your outgroup, which often creates an aversion to their extrinsic values. I say “extrinsic” because I mean beliefs and practices that aren’t intrinsic to jock-ness; they just happen to be associated with it.

The problem is that oftentimes these values are good, so we do ourselves a disservice by neglecting them for silly reasons. If we follow the nerd value of truth-seeking, what will we discover we can learn from jocks?

Jock Value: Physical Activity

For one, the jocks may have been (inadvertently?) right about exercising all the time because it turns out exercise is really really good for you. One of the hardest parts of recognizing the virtues of the outgroup is admitting that they’ve had a point, especially when you suspect that they don’t even really appreciate it themselves.

In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence though, most nerds have come around to the belief that they should exercise. But it is often only begrudgingly and after years of inactivity, which puts them way behind in athletic conditioning, coordination, and skill.

You might say, “It’s hard to prioritize physical activity because I don’t care about it, I just value intellectual pursuits”, but that’s exactly why you should care! The key to maximizing your brainpower is physical activity.

It’s generally believed adults can’t increase their IQ. Brain training games will improve your performance at those particular games, but they don’t generalize—switch to any other intelligence task and you’re back to baseline.[2]

And not only does mental training not improve IQ, but despite the commonly held belief, it probably won’t mitigate age-related cognitive decline either.

What will help though, and is the WHO’s very first recommendation to stave off dementia, is physical activity.

(Before his own physical-embodiment renaissance, my co-blogger said he’d thought of himself as “just a brain in a vat”, wholly focused on intellectual affairs. Well, your brain-vat is dirty! Exercise to clean it and think better.)

Pumping Iron

So maybe you ran cross country, or played ultimate frisbee, or participate in something appropriately nerdy like a quidditch league or such. Yes, nerds can move too.

Unfortunately, the jocks even nailed the specific form of exercise that seems especially helpful: strength training. I’d like to just chalk this up to jock-vanity, but honestly, the football players were the only ones I ever saw squatting while the rest of us did bench presses and bicep curls.

Muscle strengthening is recommended 2 times weekly by the CDC, and muscle mass is a robust predictor of longevity in older adults, but again, nerds specifically should lift weights because it helps your brain more than practically anything else.

From this nootropic survey of nearly 2000 people, weightlifting was rated as the 3rd best intervention overall at improving cognitive performance.[3] It was the only one of the top 3 that wasn’t an amphetamine, and it’s rated higher than even the infamous Ritalin!

survey of nootropics

Jock Value: Discipline

This may not sound like a jock value to nerds, but try googling “hardest working athlete” and compare the results to “hardest working scientist”. The former gives endless lists, think-pieces, and discussions, while the latter turns up a single, hastily written, Quora comment.[4]

I couldn’t tell you which famous scientists were more or less disciplined, but despite possibly never having watched an entire televised basketball game, I can say that Kobe was more disciplined than Shaq. Even for the scientists that do work day and night, it’s usually framed more as “passion” than “virtue”.

But why should nerds value discipline more? Well, for one because it’s something you can actually change. This is in contrast to the fact that just like you’re not getting any younger, you’re also not getting any smarter:

Intelligence over time
Tucker-Drob (2009)

But if you want an even nerdier rationale, consider discipline as a democracy of selves through time. Mediated through discipline, your future selves get a vote in present decisions, versus the authoritarianism of your present-self unilaterally calling all the shots. Your present-self may want to eat an entire pizza, but with discipline, it can be outvoted by your future-selves who would actually be paying the price.

Just add a “Bill of Rights” preventing any sort of tofu-only tyranny of the majority, and you’re well on your way to enjoying your own personal democracy dividend.

I never thought I’d say this, but it looks like to become a better nerd, you’ll need to become a better jock.


  1. In much of the rest of the world, this dichotomy seems less culturally ingrained. If anything I’ve found many cultures are more like the Russian saying, "a talented person is talented in everything”. ↩︎

  2. There are claims that the n-back test produces durable, transferable intelligence gains, but this is controversial. I’m curious to hear from anyone with personal experience with this. ↩︎

  3. No, these still aren’t really improving IQ, they generally work by improving executive function. ↩︎

  4. Among some nerds, there is even a belief in non-self-coercion as a counter to the idea of self-discipline. ↩︎


Thanks to Uri and Kaamya for feedback on drafts of this.



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