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The Long Reach of Popularity

Some of us pursue popularity when we should be pursuing "likeabilty."

The concept of popularity may evoke visions of high-school angst, but the drive for social currency lingers even after we have (supposedly) grown up. In Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, psychologist Mitch Prinstein explains popularity's enduring influence—and why we should pursue likability instead of "likes."

You distinguish between two types of popularity—likability and status. Why is the difference important?

Likability begins to matter in early childhood—it's based on helping others, creating harmony, and offering supportive leadership. Status becomes relevant only in adolescence, when the reward centers in our brains more acutely crave attention and visibility. Findings suggest that those high in status as adolescents are more prone to risky behavior and relationship difficulties, at least through early adulthood. They have a lifetime of longing for that kind of popularity.

What are some of the benefits of likability?

There's a bias in favor of likable people in every sphere—not just in relationships, but in job recruitment, for example. Likable people also enjoy longer and healthier lives. We should try to avoid low levels of either likability or status. Our brains are programmed to be attuned to popularity. In the days of our ancestors, being excluded from the herd led to physical injury. Because our bodies still react the way they did then, if we even think about being unpopular, we start preparing for potential injury with a system-wide inflammatory response.

What could we do to start reining in an excessive desire for status?

There's research demonstrating that certain parts of the brain respond to the quick fix of getting likes, having followers, and being noticed. But there's also evidence that helping others and feeling connected activate the same brain centers. Since both situations scratch the same itch, it's helpful to steer kids and adults toward seeking the more adaptive form of popularity.

Should people who were unpopular in school rethink their experience?

Being unpopular as a child does not doom you to a life of unhappiness. Certain kinds of suffering in youth can actually provide some psychological superpowers in adulthood, allowing a person to be a bit more sensitive to others and attentive to cues in a way that might have lifelong benefits—far outweighing a few years of adolescent despair.

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