Like "homecoming" and "curfew", "popular" is one of those words we tend to associate with high school; and understandably so, since that's the era of our lives when social status can be a daily crushing concern. But even in the thick of those angsty teenage years, you probably sensed that there was much more to the whole popularity thing than just prom court and class geeks. Like all social dynamics, it's complicated.
Just how complicated is terrain tackled in a new book on the subject. Popular: The Power of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World, by Mitch Prinstein, digs into the data and research around what designates popularity, and why it's so definitional — not just in our early lives, but through adulthood. Prinstein, a professor and the director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, divides the concept into two camps: status and likability.
Unsurprisingly, people tend to set their sights on the wrong one, which can wind up having major consequences not just for their social relationships, but also potentially for their health, too. We spoke to Prinstein about why the quest for status is ultimately one that leaves you lonely — and why being unpopular in high school is something you carry with you for literally the rest of your life.
Popularity is a concept that becomes ingrained when we're still kids. We all know what it is. But — from a psychology perspective — what does it really mean?
"Psychologists and social scientists have found that there are two kinds of popularity: One type suggests people like us, they trust us, they want to spend time with us, they enjoy their time with us. That kind of popularity is really important — it gives us a benefit in life in so many domains, for decades, whether we experience it in childhood or if we’re likable as adults.
"The second type of popularity is the one we remember from high school, that refers to our status; it reflects our visibility, our influence, our power — our celebrity, in some ways. There’s really interesting research showing that type of popularity — status popularity — does not predict long term positive outcomes. In fact, it leads to despair, addiction, and relationship problems. But most people are still confusing the two types of popularity, and searching for the wrong one."
It probably doesn't help that status popularity is the idea that's reinforced by popular media — like Mean Girls and 16 Candles and every single movie or series about high school since the beginning of time, right?
"Totally: About 30% of those who are the most popular — how we think about it in high school — are also very well liked; it’s possible for [likability and status] to go together. But more often they don’t. From our own high school experiences and from the media, we are really focused on that [status] popularity. But that’s not the type that existed before high school, or the type that matters after. It comes really natural to young kids to care about [the likable] kind of popularity; the other kind doesn’t really exist at all until adolescence. It's really interesting that there’s a type of popularity that’s inborn, and then a type we come to care about which comes online in those middle school and high school years, and then suddenly dominates our perception of the whole concept."
What's happening when kids go from caring about being likable to caring more about being cool, seeking status?
"We now know there’s this thing that happens in our brains during adolescence: It's the development of our brain, the growth of our receptors for oxytocin and dopamine. And together, those make us really crave social bonding and rewards, along with a desire for social rewards, a.k.a. the experience you get when you feel you’re being accepted or noticed or approved of. The fact that it all comes online so strongly and so quickly makes us look for any fast way to attend to our peers — to get noticed and approved of. Status emerges as a really fast way to do that."
And yet, popularity is something that you write is actually a heritable trait. How?
"There are some things that are genetically passed down that really help us out with popularity — things like our interest in interacting with others socially, our physical attractiveness. But a lot of it has to do with how parents might model social behaviors for their kids... There was one study about these moms who were either very popular — and remember their childhoods as very difficult — or they were very anxious about their own experiences growing up. The popular moms had popular kids; the unpopular moms had unpopular kids, but the moms who are really anxious about their experiences growing up had popular kids, too, because the mom's invested in their kids' development and developing their kids' likable skills."
That's one way that popularity goes with you through life. Are there others?
"There’s so much research now demonstrating that kids who are likable do better in just about every domain of childhood and adolescence. Even decades later: They get further in education, they get better grades, they are more resilient in the face of stress. The kids who are dislikable and unpopular: They tend to have more difficulties. They're more likely to experience mental health difficulties, substance use, to request welfare assistance later on. It’s really remarkable how powerful [likability] is. For status, though, the results are kind of the opposite: Those who are, in adolescence, the highest status, tend to have problems later in life. When they grow up, they have unfulfilling and poorer quality friendships, lower quality romantic relationships. They’re more prone toward substance abuse, and anxiety and depression."
"One of the things that's tricky about focusing on status is that it's not a way of developing relationships: It’s a way of dominating others, of trying to feel somehow superior or more influential or visible. And one of the ways to get there, unfortunately, is to be quite aggressive with others. That path develops relationships where people feel like they have this status and they have this power, but they don’t feel close to anybody. If anything, they are actually quite disliked by others.
"The highest status people — this is all hitting too close to home since November for us — are very, very disliked. And it’s very lonely for them. They report that they feel detached from others; isolated, like they can’t truly be themselves. Because in order to maintain that status, they can’t show any vulnerability or make close connections. People pay for that in the long run.
"It’s important to say that you can change: Those who are unpopular growing up are not doomed to negative outcomes, or to be unpopular forever. But for those who don’t really pay earnest attention to this and attempt to change, the story is not a happy one. There is a remarkably higher risk for a whole host of outcomes, not just mental health difficulties and difficulties in social situations, even their physical health. In fact, some research has shown that the risks of being unpopular on mortality are as strong as the risk of smoking on mortality."
You mentioned that this has been on display since November. In regard to the election, and the presidential office, how does popularity (and not just the popular vote) play out in that scenario?
"I finished the book before November, not realizing that [Donald Trump] would provide a contrast to the conversation, in a way that illustrated the difference between status and likability that's better than I could even imagine… I think one of the things that's really interesting is that we now have a president who has such an insatiable, explicit desire to be popular that it’s off-putting. Whether it’s the crowds or the popular vote or elbowing his way to the front of the camera, it’s just a bald-face desperate attempt for status.
"It’s a beautiful example of why that is such a turnoff — and why it’s never enough. Pursuing status will never be fulfilling, because no matter what office you’re elected to, or number of Twitter followers you have, it will never be enough. You will always be looking for more and more status. It is perpetually unfulfilling, ultimately quite desperate, and kind of pathetic."
What's happening when the quest for popularity — the bald-face play for status — backfires?
"One of the things that defines 'cool' is a casual style of not trying too hard. It’s very important to be seen as somebody who has achieved a level of status without having stepped on others, or having been overly self-focused in order to get it. Self-focused is definitely a turnoff, and it takes away from status even though it is the very thing that needs to happen [for someone] to get it. Some research shows that those who have the highest status are actually quite socially skilled, and capable of being subtle in their attempts to gain it. The problem is: Ultimately, the goal of what they’re searching for is perhaps the wrong goal — to seem better than others, rather than to join with others."
What's the biggest mistake people make when they're trying to become popular?
"They search for status instead of likability — and then wonder why they never feel fulfilled or popular enough. We’ve all had that experience of activity on social media and getting some attention for it: It feels good for a moment or two but it doesn’t last. Beyond people looking for the wrong kind of popularity, they think that if they put themselves into a new context they can be popular in that context. But no matter what you try and where you go and what context you put yourself in, if you don’t address how you are still wearing unpopular-colored glasses, you won’t realize that you’re seeing the world in a biased way."
How is popularity — both status and likability — different for women than it is for men?
"We know a couple things about this: One is that, for males, the relationship between status and likability is modest — those who are high in one can be high in the other. But for females, they are completely inversely associated: It is very hard for females to have both likability and high status. The second thing we know is: There is a lot of work that has demonstrated how much girls are socialized from a very early age that they are 'supposed to be' good at relationships. It’s kind of why, Mean Girls style, if you want to hurt a girl, then you have to damage her relationships. Girls who experience stress in the peer domain have far worse outcomes than boys who experience the same exact interpersonal stress."
"Relational aggression is a huge part of what happens with girls; it’s also a thing that helps those high status girls maintain and increase their status. What’s really concerning about that is — at a time when girls' brains, and boys' brains, are changing — there’s an exemplar of who they want to be. While developing their identity, boys and girls are looking at aggressive girls who are high in status, who are often also physically attractive: This creates an unrealistic, damaging prototype for what some girls may carry for their rest of their lives. That’s really damaging — not just for females, but for society."
It seems impossible to have a conversation about popularity anymore without acknowledging how status has been reshaped by social media. How do those things work together?
"A graduate student in my lab found that there are people who use social media in a way that heavily emphasizes social comparison: looking for feedback from others. That is the kiss of death when it comes to risk for depression. If you’re going on social media, looking at others and comparing yourself to decide if you’re as good as others, especially if you’re unpopular, it is a very big risk factor for depression. We've also recently been looking at what we’re calling 'digital status seeking' — people who explicitly go on social media to gather as much attention as they can on their feeds. That leads to all the same negative outcomes that we see for offline status seeking, as well. For young kids, it [can] lead to substance problems, or to self cutting; it’s just not a good recipe for happiness.
"I think [social media] can be used in great ways, in ways that really enhance our peer relationships, and in ways that enhance likability. But it’s far easier to get hooked into it as a way to increase your status; in a way, social media platforms are built to be numerical indicators of status, which puts emphasis on a kind of popularity that we should not be emphasizing in our society... I’m really afraid for the message that sends to the next generation, about what kind of popularity is most important. It could be a recipe for certain disaster.
"Optimistically: This is all something that we can change: 95% of people were not very popular in high school. And everyone is probably walking around with some kind of feeling of desire or longing or wishing that they were more popular, and that they could be more popular now. I just hope that people know that, just by taking some time to recognize how our automatic behaviors and our perceptual biases — how the ways that we see the world are still being unnecessarily colored by those high school experiences — that just observing that and challenging that, we actually have an incredibly fruitful opportunity to become more likable. And to become happier, too.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, by Mitch Prinstein, comes out June 6.