Decoding Popularity

What popularity is, why it matters, and how to get it right.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

This article is based on the episode "Stop trying to make popular happen" on the podcast Talk Psych to Me.

As teenagers, many of us spent more time than we care to admit trying to decode popularity. But popularity continues to impact us even in adulthood. So what leads to popularity, and does being popular even matter?

Popularity defined

Most researchers study popularity by showing participants a list of people they know and asking them to circle the names of individuals they like most and least. Through this approach, researchers Coie, Dodge, and Coppotelli (1982) found five distinct social groups:

1. Popular = most liked
2. Rejected = most disliked
3. Neglected = least named
4. Controversial = loved and hated
5. Average = a mix of sentiments

Among young kids, likability is the primary measure of popularity. Likability is predicted by friendliness combined with the ability to read others. For example, kids who try hard to make friends often wind up rejected if they come on too strong or constantly suggest activities that don't match the interests of the group. Overly aggressive or impulsive kids are also often rejected. Anxious or distrustful kids are prone to neglect, while disruptive but playful kids (like class clowns) have controversial reputations.

As we grow into adolescence, popularity becomes a mix of two dimensions: likability and status. In the U.S., high status goes hand-in-hand with attractiveness, access to impressive resources (cars, clothes, etc.), and social aggression or dominance. In grade school, the most popular kids typically do what adults find important, whereas the most popular teenagers are usually the ones who do the opposite of what adults value.

That said, high status is highly culture-dependent. So, collectivist cultures, like China, place far greater value on cooperation than aggression. And even a subculture (like a neighborhood or specific school) will impact what is considered "cool."

The dangers of rejection and neglect

Perhaps more important to consider than popularity is the impact of being unpopular. Being isolated doesn't just feel bad; it is actually dangerous to our health. Researchers Cole et al. (2015) found that feeling rejected impacts our gene expression, triggering white blood cell activation to prepare for wound healing and reducing our immunity to viruses. Why?

Resistance to viruses (like colds) matters most when we are surrounded by people, while the ability to prevent infection was most helpful to our ancestors when they were alone and vulnerable to predators. This is a handy adaptation, but in modern times, isolation can lead to chronic inflammation, which can result in Alzheimer's and cancer.

The dangers of popularity

Kids and adults who are seen as more popular get more attention and have more influence. But despite the benefits of social status, being very popular comes with its own risks, including an addiction to praise and attention, chronic loneliness, anxiety, and substance abuse. In a study titled "Whatever happened to the 'cool' kids?" psychologists found that the most popular kids in high school often got "stuck" in adolescence, where social rewards were strongest, failing to adapt to adult life demands and values.

Getting popularity right

What can we do to achieve the right balance of popularity?

1. Create a connection cadence. For most humans, feeling a sense of belonging matters a lot. So, for starters, cultivate at least a few relationships that are close enough for you to feel seen and accepted.

Feeling lonely and not sure where to begin? Look for opportunities to volunteer or be a mentor, and seek out communities with shared hobbies or beliefs. Next, develop a consistent connection cadence, proactively making plans, or simply accepting invitations on a predictable schedule.

2. Do a status-seeking detox. Left unchecked, our natural craving for social rewards can lead to bad decisions, from making expensive, status symbol purchases to compulsively checking our likes on Instagram. While the rush of being admired can be intoxicating, it is an extrinsic motivator, which means the feeling is fleeting and often mixed with complex emotions of fear and frustration.

So, give your brain a break from status-seeking. Stop checking social media for a month, or limit your consumption to once a week. Don't name drop or brag about your latest accomplishments to acquaintances—promote your failures instead! And don't follow individuals who spark feelings of envy or shame.

Once the social rewards cravings die down, ask yourself: "What do I actually value?" "What brings me fulfillment?" "Who makes me feel like the best version of myself?"

3. Be an inviter. Any time you notice someone getting left out, make an effort to invite them in. Is there someone who typically eats alone? Suggest grabbing lunch together. Notice someone who isn't speaking up during a meeting or group conversation? Ask if they'd like to share their perspective. Is there someone who gets teased when they're not around? Stick up for them and share something you like about this person.

Not only can being deliberately inclusive elevate your likability, but it can also make a huge impact on other people's feelings of belonging and engagement. Through our research at LifeLabs Learning, we've found that these types of micro-inclusions are the hallmark of great leaders and great teams.

References

“Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation” by Steven Cole et. al. (2015) 

“Dimensions and types of social status: A cross-age perspective” by John Coie, Kenneth Dodge, & Heide Coppotelli (1982) 

Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships by Mitch Prinstein (2018) 

“What Ever Happened to the ‘Cool’ Kids? Long‐Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior” by Joseph Allen (2014) 

"Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame" by Donna Rockwell & David Giles (2009)