We live in an age obsessed with popularity. Adults spend more and more of their time thinking, and behaving, like high school students. In a new book—called, yes, Popular—psychologist Mitch Prinstein explores popularity with a scientist’s eye. Prinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that there are, in fact, two types of popularity and that we as a culture have settled on the more dysfunctional type. There is, he says, a better way. Prinstein answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook

Psychologist Mitch Prinstein. Credit: Somer Hadley at Revolution Studios

Scientific American: Does our popularity in high school affect us later in life?
Prinstein: It does. Quite remarkably, in fact. Research findings suggest that even 40 years later, we can predict who will graduate from high school or college, who will succeed at work, who will apply for welfare or social services, and who may suffer from debilitating mental health difficulties or addictions all by knowing how popular folks were in high school. Our popularity even predicts our physical health—those who were least popular in childhood are more likely to have cardiovascular and metabolic illnesses decades later than those who were well liked. One analysis suggested that the risks of unpopularity on our mortality are as strong as the risks that come from smoking!

What may be most surprising, however, is that our popularity plays a role that cannot be accounted for by our socioeconomic status, IQ, family background, prior mental health difficulties or appearance. There’s something about the way we are regarded by others that changes our life trajectories quite meaningfully and substantially. 

What do you mean by “popularity”?
This is an important question because most do not realize that scientists have identified two different types of popularity, each associated with very different outcomes. In childhood, our popularity is defined by how much we are liked by others. The most popular kids are those who lead quietly, help others and cooperate, and this type of popularity predicts many desirable long-term outcomes. 

A second type of popularity emerges in adolescence, however, reflecting changes in our neural circuitry that are triggered by pubertal hormones. This 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, et cetera) 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. 

Can you tell me more about the problems you see with pursuing status?
There are problems for individuals who pursue status and problems for us as a society that has continued to invest in this type of popularity. Research findings, such as those published by University of Virginia professor Joe Allen, indicate that those who care the most about their social standing grow up to have difficulties with their interpersonal relationships years later. They remain fixated on their status and even on others’ popularity rather than on attributes that may lead to fulfilling human connection. Other research suggests that those who wish the most for status are most likely to later report anxiety, depression and problems with substance use.

As a society, there already are signs that our desire for status has taken a toll. Compared with just a few decades ago, research suggests that our life goals now reflect wishes to own more possessions, acquire more power, and feel more visible and influential than others. This is in stark contrast to our desire to foster community and cooperation just a couple of decades ago. Even our children are getting the message that the number of their social media followers is an accomplishment worth striving for. Yet ironically, the more we seek these online markers of status—retweets, “likes,” shares—the more we feel segmented and disconnected from one another.

Were you popular as a kid?
Not really. In fact, at 4’7” in 10th grade, with a perfect attendance record since kindergarten, I would have easily served as the poster boy for the nerds! If we think of the most popular as those who had the highest “status,” I wasn’t popular at all.

But I think I was likable. And it turns out that this was more important.

How so? How has this shaped your life?
Studies show that people who are likable are afforded privileges that become reinforcing and self-perpetuating. As children, those who are liked are invited to join others more often, and each of these interactions offers extra opportunities to learn skills that were denied to unlikable, excluded peers. Over time these skills lead to even greater likability, additional learning occasions, and so on, creating a cycle that leads likable people to not only enjoy more positive reputations but truly advanced skills and competencies. 

The same is true for adults. Two equally qualified employees, for instance, will get further in their career if they differ in likability—not solely because of favoritism but because the more likable person will actually become the better employee. 

I was lucky. A good sense of humor about my physical differences in adolescence helped me to avoid most egregious instances of bullying and form friendships with peers that guided me toward good decisions and new opportunities. I wasn’t “cool,” but I was able to enter whatever context I needed and learn skills that I still draw on to this day.    

Are there ways to convince people to switch from pursuing status to the “likable” kind of popularity?
I hope this book will offer folks an opportunity to acknowledge that we all have human instincts to seek popularity. It may feel juvenile, reflecting the time in our lives when popularity seemed paramount. But there’s remarkable evidence that popularity still matters today, and it guides our behavior and our desires as much as it did back then. Our longing for popularity is literally a part of our DNA. 

As adults, we have the option of choosing the type of popularity we strive for, however. For some, simply reading the book and recognizing the distinct outcomes associated with likability versus status will offer a sufficient opportunity to reflect on past behavior and think about instincts more critically. Once people realize how clearly science has linked status with negative outcomes, convincing folks to return to a focus on likability may be easy. For others, it may take a bit more, however. Without knowing who would be elected last November, the book now seems to offer a prophetic message to our president—perhaps the best illustration of an insatiable appetite for status that has become distracting, unsatisfying and even dangerous.