‘Popular’: You Are Not Fated to Be Disliked

Adolescent psychologist Mitch Prinstein's new study of popularity, Popular, confirms the worst and hopes for the best.

Mitch Prinstein is an adolescent psychologist who is Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All of the books he’s written thus far have been textbooks for psych students to understand clinical work, seek internships or mentorships, and foster useful research agendas. He’s also written widely to share his research with the more general readership of Time magazine, the New York Times, CNN and so on. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World is his first book written for a general audience.

Based on the conclusions of his own research in the field as well as his aggregation of others’ studies, Prinstein’s argument is that there are two kinds of popularity and one of them is good. He differentiates between attainment of status and projection of likability. Attainment of status involves attention-seeking behaviors oriented toward fame, wealth, and the general acquisition of power such as prestigious board memberships. At the adolescent level, where lofty titles and financial gains are largely outside the scope of one’s own control, teens have supplanted status with social media. They track their own data, driven to construct personas that will garner the most positive feedback from their internet community. Teens believe that the most popular one among them is the one who possesses the most followers and most likes.

Interestingly, research overwhelmingly supports the inverse relationship between Prinstein’s two types of popularity. Those teenagers who are widely perceived as most popular by their peers in the realm of status concerns are the same ones who are widely despised. Likability involves empathy, warmth, and humor — three traits that no popular kid from Mean Girls or any John Hughes movie ever possessed. And yet, likability must be construed as a form of social capital that operates like popularity because, in the adult sphere, it is the most likable people who tend to have the most success. Between two equally qualified candidates, employers obviously prefer the one who is the best cultural fit. Nobody wants a selfish, haughty, overly serious person sitting in the cubicle next to theirs.

But how do we measure likability? Prinstein’s work highlights a variety of simple social experiments in the land of kindergartners and sophomores that demonstrate the instinctiveness with which kids can read minute social cues and independently form remarkably quick, consistent appraisals of other kids’ likability. Hey, we all walked into the cafeteria on the first day of school and made some instant decisions, didn’t we? Though I’m not board certified in adolescent psychology like Prinstein, as a tenth grade English teacher for more than a decade, I’ve done Malcolm Gladwell’s requisite 10,000 hours of field work on over 2,000 cases of teen popularity. It’s the daily undercurrent of the work teachers do in any classroom. On that first day of class, I can tell which kid has the most status by the time I’m finished taking attendance, fewer than five minutes into greeting a room full of 35 students.

Figuring out which kids are likable usually takes only a few minutes longer, and the impact of their likability as we progress through our ten months together is not only apparent to me, but also consistent across all my years of teaching experience. I concur with Prinstein’s research that a teen’s likability ultimately places her or him into one of five categories: average, accepted, neglected, rejected, or controversial. He says about 40 percent of teens are average, meaning they are somewhat liked and somewhat disliked, holding steady in a reasonable middle ground where they have strong friendships and not much fear of bullying or the subtler tortures of high school.

The subtler tortures belong to the neglected or rejected teens. Neglected teens are neither disliked nor liked. Their peers have no opinion of them and mostly act as if they are invisible. The rejected teens are those who are more disliked than liked. Rejected kids tend to have weak or spotty social skills when it comes to collaboration and communication, and they may be bullies.

Controversial teens are strongly liked and strongly disliked. They stand out one way or another. Prinstein says this type is comparatively rare and there’s not much data to analyze how controversial teens fare as adults. Anecdotally, based on my own experience, I can find at least one in every classroom. Often they are lone wolves, sought for their intellect when there’s a particularly difficult assignment, but perceived to be so out of touch with the drama and trends of teenage life that there is no reason to mingle with them socially. Most controversials that I’ve taught have a far more detailed ten-year plan than their peers do and adults often consider them to be old souls. (If this more extensive speculation on their nature seems like a case of baseless favoritism to you, then you have rightly guessed that I am a self-diagnosed controversial.)

We know that likable kids become likable adults, and likable adults succeed — they are happier than their unlikable peers. We also know that adults can influence their child’s likability both by genetics and by parenting. Children come to resemble their parents not only in physical attractiveness, but in styles of communication, methods of coping with strong emotions, and general senses of kindness or fairness. Prinstein’s book will appeal to parents and teachers who want to see the data behind what we already know by instinct. We say that life after high school is “the real world” and that “it gets better”, but there is simply no denying the scientific fact that popularity is a social measure that never recedes very far into the background of any life at any age.

That’s a bleak prognosis, isn’t it? Popular is not designed to offer blanket solutions to improving one’s own likability. Prinstein’s research is not even laid out in such a way as to facilitate easy diagnosis of any particular reader’s likability. There were not many times where I read to the end of one of his pieces of anecdotal evidence and immediately knew that my life was a parallel to the life he described. More often, I was filled with a generalized anxiety about whether I was popular in high school and whether I am likable now. Occasionally, it led me to wonder whether America will ever elect a female president.

To Prinstein’s credit, he repeatedly acknowledges that despite the depressing nature of his findings, it is entirely possible to make slow but steady individual progress toward rewiring the social database of our brains through the myriad small decisions we make every day, holding on to the possibility that we can all achieve greater likability and the greater happiness that follows from it. That’s an optimistic goal based on pessimistic data, but bettering ourselves in whatever small ways we can is really the only leap of faith we have. Otherwise, popularity is the new determinism.

RATING 5 / 10