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Being Popular: Why it Consumes Teens and Continues to Affect Adults

Originally published on MindShift.

Popularity is a loaded word. For many adults, it evokes powerful memories of jockeying for position in high school cafeterias and hallways.

These memories are salient for a reason, said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and author of “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.” The urge to be popular among our peers reaches its zenith in adolescence, “at just the same time we are developing a stable personality,” said Prinstein. “So the messages you get at age 14 about who you are and how the world works will affect how you behave when you are 40.”

But popularity has paradoxes. Sometimes the most popular students are also widely disliked by their peers — even when those same peers seek to emulate them.  And although we are hardwired to seek popularity, it isn’t always healthy for us, said Prinstein. In fact, one form of popularity puts teens at risk for long-term consequences.

To make sense of these biological impulses and their social implications, Prinstein’s research focuses on two distinct types of popularity: likability and status.

The type of popularity that brings back memories of the middle school pecking order is related to status. Status, said Prinstein, “is not a measure of how well a person is liked.” Rather, it reflects a person’s visibility, dominance and influence on the group.

But there is another type of popularity that reflects a person’s likability. This is the first form of popularity that kids experience. “At the age of 3, you can go in and ask kids who they like most and least. The popular kids are the ones everyone likes the most,” said Prinstein. Again and again, children are drawn to peers who treat others with respect, who know how to share and cooperate, and who make other members of the group feel good about themselves.

But as children enter middle school, the equation changes. “In adolescence, something happens in our brains –  the neurochemical cocktail of oxytocin and dopamine,” said Prinstein. Oxytocin (sometimes called the “love hormone”) promotes a need to connect and bond with others; dopamine activates the brain’s pleasure center and is commonly associated with the high people feel from drugs. As a result, said Prinstein, teens “become almost addicted to any type of attention from peers.”

Unfortunately, one of the fastest ways to get attention from peers is to exercise “dominance, aggression, and power, and that is where the second form of popularity — status — is formed.” Prinstein likens status-seeking to a primate beating its chest to show dominance: “The non-human part of our brains —  or rather the part of our brain that resembles other animal species —  makes us attuned to that type of popularity.”

Adolescents at Risk

Prinstein notes that “the ability to interact with peers and remain emotionally regulated predicts addiction, dropout rates, relationships issues and even child-rearing ability.” Researchers have found that two groups of teens are most at risk for long-term consequences related to their social status.

The first group is those who experience repeated rejection from peers. “We often interpret situations based on past, not current, experiences,” said Prinstein, so teens who experience rejection in high school come to “expect rejection” as adults, coloring their interactions with others and their self-perception.

But high-status popularity also carries with it long-term risk factors. People whose popularity is grounded in status “grow up and believe that the way you get what you want is to be aggressive toward others and constantly attend to your social status,” repeating patterns that seemed to work in high school, said Prinstein. High-status teens are less likely to have satisfying friendships and romantic relationships later in life. They are also at higher risk for substance abuse problems, including DUIs.

Prinstein’s research points to a few ways that adults can help students navigate these two types of popularity, giving teenagers valuable context for what is happening in their brains and in the hallways at school.

Teach Social and Leadership Skills

Data suggest that even after accounting for factors such as IQ and socioeconomic status, “it is our likability that predicts so many outcomes decades later,” said Prinstein. “It’s key to how to be successful in a modern-day world. But it’s an area we spend so little time teaching and monitoring — to everybody’s detriment.”

For example, when assigning group work, teachers shouldn’t assume that teenagers have the skills to work together effectively, said Prinstein. Small groups are often a microcosm of larger social dynamics — and can be both powerful and potentially painful for participants. Teachers can prepare students for more effective group work by helping them identify and practice effective leadership skills. Prinstein’s research finds that “likable leaders lead differently than high-status leaders,” giving teachers an opportunity to explicitly promote the qualities of likable leaders.

“Likable leaders do a really good job of making everyone on the team feel valued. They do a lot of listening and not as much talking. They help create group norms and a group harmony.  They make sure everyone feels heard and that the end product has a piece of what each person contributed,” said Prinstein. “In contrast, high-status leaders insert themselves into that position and exert dominance. It’s a different mindset. [Ultimately], likable leaders are the best leaders.”

Provide Scaffolded Support

Evidence suggests that parents can effectively support their preschoolers’ social learning and likability through “scaffolding”: providing structure and modeling of positive social behavior and then stepping back as they grow more capable.

In middle and high school, parents can still provide valuable social support, said Prinstein. Instead of “How do I share my toys?” the question might be “How do I turn down an invitation gracefully?” or “How do I express my feelings to a friend who has hurt me?” According to one study, when parents talked with their children about social skills —  including what to look for in a friend or how to interact positively with others — they developed stronger peer relationships.

Help Teens Navigate Social Media

Social media feeds our primal desire for peer attention, said Prinstein. Likes, followers and retweets provide what feels like measurable data about one’s social status. “We are in a status-seeking crisis as a society. There are kids who feel that their experiences haven’t really happened until they have shared them and seen how many responses they get. It erodes our ability to make our own judgments in alignment with our values.”

As Prinstein said, “Every media outlet tells them, ‘Gain as many followers as you can!’ But every piece of data says that this will make them lonely, depressed and at risk for relationship problems. Social media is serving some of our social needs but not all of our social needs.”

Prinstein said that, based on his research, he would offer this advice to teens: “You know that momentary high you might get by making yourself seem higher in status by disparaging others? It might feel good in the short term, but it’s not only damaging to others, it is damaging to you in the long run. ”

Instead, he said“Spend your time learning how to be empathic and forge genuine relationships. Connect with people. Become a better listener. Focus on developing good friendships and being likable — caring and connected with others.”

In the end, he said, “you may be better off if you are not the most popular teen in your school.”