Popularity is a loaded word. For many adults, it evokes powerful memories of jockeying for position in high school cafeterias and hallways.
“The urge to be popular among our peers reaches its zenith in adolescence,” said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and author of Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. “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.
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.”
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.
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.