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Why High School Stays with You Forever (Like It or Not)

The psychology and biology that makes teen stress so memorable.

Source: Paramount

The English Romantic Poet Robert Southey believed that “The first 20 years are the longest half of your life, no matter how long you might live.”

Memory researchers have in fact identified something called "The Reminiscence Bump," which confirms that the strongest memories for the events in our lives come from things that happened to us between the ages of 10 and 30.

Why the High School Years are Special

For many people, the most vividly remembered and emotionally charged of those years are spent in high school. Unrequited romantic crushes; chronic embarrassment; desperate struggles for popularity; sexual awakening; parental pressure. And above all else, competition: social, athletic, academic, and otherwise. The angst of these years follows us through life, and the conflicted feelings so many of us harbor about high school fuel the popularity of TV shows and movies like Beverly Hills 90210, Mean Girls, Heathers, The Breakfast Club, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to name just a few.

What is it about this time of life that makes it stand out from the rest of our years? Part of it is undoubtedly due to changes in the brain's sensitivity to certain types of information during adolescence, but this is not the whole story.

For some of us, high school shines like an enchanted kingdom compared to which every other stage of life falls short. [See one of my earlier blogs about “happiness” that may partially explain this.] For others, it is remembered as an endless Hell of daily torments. For most of us, it is something in between, but emotional nonetheless. And strong emotions equal strong memories; even the music from those years gets imprinted on our brain like nothing that comes later.

I believe that many factors interact to make our teenage memories so vivid, but it is primarily the collision between the evolved psychological mechanisms needed for success in our ancestral hunter-gatherer world and the modern institution of the high school that is responsible.

Evolution & the Teen Years

Frank McAndrew/Used by permission
Source: Frank McAndrew/Used by permission

As far as scientists can tell, our prehistoric forebears lived in relatively small groups where they knew everyone else in a face-to-face, long-term way. Most people would live out their entire life in this group, and one’s social standing within it was determined early on – during adolescence.

How much one was admired as a warrior or hunter, how desirable one was perceived to be as a mate, and how much trust and esteem was accorded to one by others—all was sorted out in young adulthood. A person deemed to be a loser at 18 was unlikely to rise to a position of prominence at 40. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, the competition of the teen years was in fact a life-and-death affair.

In our modern world, one can of course move off to new places after graduation and start over.

However, even though we may be consciously aware of this (to the extent that we are consciously aware of anything when we are teenagers), the psychological buttons that get pushed in the adolescent brain make the importance of our social lives override everything else. Popularity with peer groups can become an obsession, since it is the people in your own age cohort against whom you will be ranked forever. After all, your adult status primarily depends upon how you stack up compared to them, not to others.

Also, strong conformity pressures insure that you do not stray too far from the group’s values; ostracism from the group in prehistoric times was tantamount to a death sentence. One's teenage self strives to cement inclusion in the group at all costs. Further, one needs to be able to forge alliances with others and demonstrate loyalty to these individuals, resulting in a splintering of the social world into competing cliques that grind each other up in the gears of the social hierarchy.

Frank McAndrew/Used by permission
Source: Frank McAndrew/Used by permission

Conflict with parents is usually inevitable at this time. Parents are vitally concerned with their children’s success, but their perspective is usually more long-term compared to the teen's. So, the things that the parent thinks that the child should be concerned with and the things that the child is emotionally driven to actually be concerned with are often quite different. How the high-schooler chooses to spend leisure time, and whom he or she chooses to date or hang out with, can become a real minefield.

Hormones fuel the “showing off” of qualities that would have increased one’s market value in early societies. In young men, we still reward to some extent the things that would have been essential for success in hunting and combat—the willingness to take risks, and skills such as fighting ability, running fast, clubbing things, and throwing things with velocity and accuracy. For young women, the advertisement of youth and fertility through all of the usual standards of beauty becomes a significant criterion by which they are judged.

Our Cognitive Biases

A related social skill that would have had a big payoff in earlier times is the ability to remember details about the temperament, predictability, and past behavior of individuals who were personally known to you; there would have been little use for a mind designed to engage in abstract statistical thinking about large numbers of unknown outsiders.

In today’s world, it is advantageous to be able to think in terms of probabilities and percentages when it comes to people, because predicting the behavior of the strangers we deal with in everyday life requires that we do so. This task is difficult for many of us because the early wiring of the brain was guided by different needs. Thus, natural selection shaped a thirst for, and a memory to store information about, specific people. We needed to remember who treated us well and who did not—the more emotional the memory, the less likely we are to forget it. This strong propensity for holding grudges protects us from being taken advantage of again, but can also make for some uncomfortable, anxiety-arousing moments at high school reunions.

Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock
Source: Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock

To further complicate things, high school is probably the last time in life when people of all sorts are thrown together for no other reason than they are the same age and live in the same area.

Yes, high schools are often segregated by economic background and race, but for many there is still more of a mix in day-to-day life than they will encounter later. After high school, people begin to sort themselves out according to intelligence, political values, occupational interests, and a wide range of other social screening devices.

At the same time, however, the people you knew in high school remain your default group for engaging in social comparison precisely because they are the same age as you and because they started out in the same place, so there is typically a degree of interest in finding out what happened to them later in life if for no other reason than to help you figure out your feelings about your own life.

So, knowing all this, are you looking forward to your next high school reunion—or not?

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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