Remember recess? Running around a huge playground, screaming, laughing, rolling down hills?
Which kid were you? Were you part of the horde playing a massive game of tag? Did you sit with a special friend, happy to play together in your own world where no one else existed? Or did you walk around the perimeter of the playground, holding a stick, talking to a worm, watching, but not joining your peers?
Doesn't this all seem like it happened a million years ago?
Now you are an adult, and it's lunchtime. You look up from your desk and see a few familiar patterns as folks gather to go out for food. There's Jim, standing by the elevator, surrounded by 4-5 of his friends who laugh at every one of his jokes. There's Maria and her group eating salads in the lounge, usually talking about their co-workers. George always stays at his desk, usually claiming that he has too much work to do, but you kind of get the feeling that no one has ever invited him to join them anyway.
A growing body of psychological research is revealing a few remarkable connections between our childhood experiences with peers and our lives in adulthood. Sometimes in not so obvious ways. Just by knowing how well you were liked by peers in childhood (starting as early as kindergarten) allows us to make pretty good predictions about your life as an adult today – across a whole range of domains.
In psychological research, this kind of work is done by asking even very young children to answer to very simple questions. In safe, discrete ways, we ask kids to tell us which of their classmates they like the most and which they dislike the most. This reliably identifies five groups of children who grow up to have very different lives.
Which were you? Take the QUIZ.
Remarkably, these groups can be fairly stable as we grow up. Rejected kids tend to stay that way from elementary school into high school, and sometimes even into adulthood. It doesn't matter if they change schools or get a makeover in a move starring Freddie Prinze Jr.; Rejected kids become rejected all over again, very quickly. Same for Accepted and Controversial kids too!
Maybe this is why the effects of these early peer experiences are so enduring. Which category fit you in elementary school? Has it affected you as an adult?
If you were Rejected, research suggests that you are up to twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety as an adult. You make less money than others with similar experience. You may have had more difficulty finding a stable romantic partner, and if you did, you have been a little less secure in that relationship than others (often feeling like maybe you were not loved, or worthy of love). Being Rejected in childhood actually changes brain wiring in ways that make you process the world around you a little differently (i.e., do you think that others are being mean to you, when they are not?), and you may even care more about external validation (i.e., seeking praise and reassurance) than intrinsic reinforcement. Being Rejected even has triggered dormant DNA in your cells to increase your risk for inflammatory disease later in life.
Were you Controversial? If so (and if you were also physically attractive), you may have grown up to be one the dominant, high status adolescents in high school (think The Plastics, or A-listers) who bullied others to stay at the top of the teenage food chain. You probably started using illegal substances earlier in life, having unprotected sex, and your chances of teenage pregnancy (or getting someone pregnant before the age of 17) was much higher than others. As an adult, research says that you may have some difficulties with substance use and addiction now, you are focused more on beauty and power than others, and you may even look older now than many of your classmates the same age as you.
Were you Neglected? Surprisingly, many of these kids turn out to be pretty OK. Neglected kids are most likely to switch categories as they grow up. A Neglected 4th grader is just as likely to be Neglected, Accepted, or Rejected by high school. If you playing by yourself was your own choice, or if you were simply not very interested in others, then you may have been completely content with forging your own path as you grew up. If you were Neglected because you always felt too apprehensive to approach others, however, then there is a good chance you have continued to experience significant anxiety throughout your life. Research suggests that dating was not an easy experience for you, and you may have even chosen a career path that allowed you to minimize social situations that were especially scary (public speaking, recruiting, in-person sales).
If you were Accepted, then you have probably had a very different life than the others. You are confident and optimistic, maybe even a little too much sometimes. You are comfortable developing new relationships at work and in your personal life, and you have used that to your advantage. Perhaps you are a leader, maybe you are the social butterfly of your neighborhood, and maybe you have committed yourself to deep personal relationships with friends and family. If you have an argument, you are less likely to think about retaliation and more likely to think of ways to resolve conflict by strengthening your relationship. Whatever you are doing, you are more likely than any of your elementary school playmates to feel like your life has meaning and you are flourishing.
Of course, not everyone who was Rejected turns out to have difficulties, just as not everyone who was Accepted has a lifetime of success. However, findings have been remarkably consistent in suggesting that this simple classification into five groups of likeability in elementary school is a stronger predictor of our adult lives than we ever thought. In fact, we even have some evidence to suggest that how likeable you were in elementary school is affecting how you parent your own children, and how liked they will be as they grow up.
Mitch Prinstein is the author of POPULAR: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World (Viking), coming June 6. See the POPULAR website for more details.
© Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D, 2015