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Is Popularity Genetic?

How genetics might be the key to flying up the social ladder. 

Key points

  • A new Rice University study of fruit flies finds that ‘popularity’ or social status can be inherited.
  • Scientists found that genetically related flies maintain the same social status, regardless of their environment.
  • Because nearly all living creatures exist within a social hierarchy, this research could also apply to humans.
  • Parents who remember their youth fondly have kids who are likely to be more popular.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

The reign of the social butterflies is over.

A recent study at Rice University found that for fruit flies, popularity runs in the family.

In the comprehensive study, university bioscientists meticulously monitored the interactions of 98 different groups of flies in varying environments. Each group contained about 20 flies. The catch? Each of the 20 flies was genetically different but cloned to populate the 98 groups. In other words, imagine your group of friends is cloned dozens of times and each ‘set’ of friends then inhabits a separate planet or bizarro world where cameras capture their every move.

If this sounds a bit like a Hollywood film, you’re not wrong. Julia Saltz, one of the study’s scientists likened the experiment to the 1998 film, The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey plays a man who has no clue he's the star of a reality show with cameras capturing every move he makes.

Running the study, she said, was similar to producing 98 separate Truman Shows, but “with 20 Trumans in each show.”

And, in true reality television form, power dynamics and social networks were the primary focus of the study. After watching dozens of hours of footage of the various fruity fly groups and thousands of their social interactions, the scientists unexpectedly found that each of the flies maintained the same social status, regardless of their environment. Environmental changes included having different types and quantities of food available.

This meant that in both good and bad conditions, the genetically similar fruit flies kept their same social positions and groups, so if one fly had a lot of friends and privileges in one environment, it also had them in the other 97.

While other studies suggest natural selection drives the development of social networks, the study's researchers say, few have identified those related genetic elements. Until now, that is.

But can these findings be applied to humans too? According to Saltz, since nearly all living creatures exist within a social hierarchy, this research could also apply to other species, including us. So maybe some people are just genetically destined to be popular.

However, conditions to run an experiment like this for people wouldn't be as easy to replicate. The perfect set-up would require sets of identical twins to spend their lives apart, each group monitored in their own Truman Show environment to see if they end up with the same friends.

How parents can influence your popularity

Luckily, there's an easier way to predict social status, and it's much closer to home: Just ask your parents. According to Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of the book, Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, parents wield profound influence over their children’s social rank.

One factor is how parents reminisce about their own childhoods. For example, parents who remember their youth fondly have kids who are likely to be more popular, whereas those who recall hostile memories, tend to have unpopular kids. Also, parents who had lonely or anxious childhoods have kids who tend to have average or higher popularity.

Behavioral responses are also inherited, so parents with positive behavioral inhibition (BI), which is a tendency to show stress or anxiety in new situations, can pass down this personality type to their offspring. Another genetic trait that runs in the family is appearance. And, it’s no secret that attractive people tend to fare better in school, work, and life, in general.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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