'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.

Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World

Publisher: Viking
Length: 288 pages
Author: Mitch Prinstein
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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