Science of Learning July 13, Like most things in life, popularity is more complicated than it looks. Some people are popular because they are likable—their peers like them, trust them, and want to be with them. Others are popular because they somehow gain a certain status, and use that power to wield influence over others ie, high school. Which kind of popularity you pursue matters, says Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina.
He recently published Popular: Prinstein delves into reams of research about what popularity is, and what effects it has on us. He shows that people who seek to be likable tend to end up healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems. Back then, it was just a phase. Adolescence would hit and teens suddenly became consumed with a desire to be noticed, accepted, and approved.
For more on the complicated neuroscience of teen brains, read this. As teens became adults, they realized that social capital came from connections—with other people and communities at large. After adolescence, we would revert back to caring mostly about likability. Now, we care more about status at all ages, effectively condemning ourselves to endless adolescence.
However, there is a dramatic gender divide. For boys, there is some overlap between likability and status; it is possible to be high-status and liked. For girls, there is not. Building status is not about developing relationships but dominating others, which ultimately makes many popular but unlikeable. This problem starts early. Boys are more often encouraged to focus on performance. All of this gets ramped up in adolescence. If you want to hurt a boy, you make him feel weak and passive; with a girl, you make her feel socially inept and excluded.
These effects can be long-lasting. Girls who struggle with friendships as teens have far worse outcomes than boys who experience the same stress, Prinstein says. This all metastasizes into the double-standards we dump onto successful women: The effects of popularity are profound. That does not mean we have no control over the effects, he argues. They can talk to their teens about the difference between likability and status, and let their kids know that status-seeking popularity may feel good in the moment, but might relegate them to depression and poor health later in life.
For evidence, see this study of 10, Swedish kids over 40 years, which found that likability closely predicted future happiness and income. Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, says we should challenge girls to think about why they like someone.
Another study, which looked at how parents model popularity for their kids, showed that popular moms tended to have popular kids and unpopular moms tended to have unpopular kids. But interestingly, the mothers who had the most anxiety-riddled childhoods also ended up with popular kids, most likely because they helped their kids avoid their own unfortunate fate.
In other words, parents can help kids build real relationships, one play-date at a time. Adults need to recognize how biased they are in favor of their own view of popularity.
Recognize that you are not in high school and you are not bound by the social hierarchies of that time, even if Instagram is doing everything in its power to tell you otherwise.
You can capitulate to seeking as many likes and shares, get the short-term rush and then face the long-term consequences. Or, you can call a friend, get a beer, and become a little more likable.