Who’s Popular and Why

Who’s popular—and why? Psychology professor Mitch Prinstein addresses this in his book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. The product of decades of research, Prinstein writes about two different kinds of popularity: the first starts in childhood and and is about being well-liked, and the second develops in adolescence and is about status, “reflecting changes in our neural circuitry that are triggered by pubertal hormones.”

From an author interview with Gareth Cook, Scientific American: “[Adolescence] is the period when popularity begins to reflect our ‘status’ more than our ‘likability.’ The markers of status – visibility, influence, dominance, and power – all activate the social reward centers in our brain and change our relationship with popularity forever. Throughout adulthood, we have a choice to pursue greater likability or greater status – a decision made so much more difficult by the growing number of platforms (reality TV, social media, etc.) designed to help us gain status. In fact, our focus on easily-obtained status now is perhaps stronger than at any other point in human history. That’s a problem, however. Because unlike the positive outcomes associated with high likability, research findings indicate that having high status leads to later aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”

Although the book was finished before the presidential election last year, Prinstein now can’t help but use Trump as an example of the unhealthiness of status popularity. From an interview with Elizabeth Kiefer, Refinery 29: “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.”

Apparently there can be about 30% overlap between likability and status popularity; in other words, some people have both. Unfortunately, and this is another thing that can be applied to election issues, this kind of combo in women is perceived more negatively than in men. “It is very hard for females to have both likability and high status.” Enough said?

As Prinstein told Kiefer, who’s popular can partly be attributed to genes—“things like our interest in interacting with others socially, our physical attractiveness”—and partly to parental modeling. Bottom line, though, whatever level of popular you’ve been, you don’t have to stay there:

…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.

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