There are two kinds of popularity and we are choosing the wrong one

Like or “like”?
Like or “like”?
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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Like most things in life, popularity is more complicated than it looks. Some people are popular because they are likable—their peers like them, trust them, and want to be with them. Others are popular because they somehow gain a certain status, and use that power to wield influence over others (ie, high school).

Which kind of popularity you pursue matters, says Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina. He recently published Popular: The Power of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World.

Prinstein delves into reams of research about what popularity is, and what effects it has on us. He shows that people who seek to be likable tend to end up healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems.

In the age of Instagram, it’s no shock that most of us are gravitating to the wrong kind.

“Most of us confuse the two types of popularity, and search for the wrong one,” says Prinstein.

This wasn’t as much of a problem 30 years ago. Back then, it was just a phase. Adolescence would hit and teens suddenly became consumed with a desire to be noticed, accepted, and approved. (For more on the complicated neuroscience of teen brains, read this). Since status is easier to achieve than being likable, teenagers default to status-seeking (inspiring a canon of classic films, from Mean Girls and The Breakfast Club to Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

As teens became adults, they realized that social capital came from connections—with other people and communities at large. After adolescence, we would revert back to caring mostly about likability.

No longer. Now, we care more about status at all ages, effectively condemning ourselves to endless adolescence.

“The world has become a perpetual high school,” Prinstein says. “We can live in that adolescent mindset for the rest of our lives if we are not careful.”

The gender gap

For some, the two types of popularity overlap. About 30% of people are both likable and high-status.

However, there is a dramatic gender divide. For boys, there is some overlap between likability and status; it is possible to be high-status and liked. For girls, there is not. Thus, the high-status girl in high school who is socially shrewd, beautiful, and effortlessly popular—ie, the stereotypical “mean girl”—becomes the paragon of what popularity looks like. Girls use “relational aggression” to maintain their power over others. Building status is not about developing relationships but dominating others, which ultimately makes many popular but unlikeable.

This problem starts early. Girls are socialized from a young age to be “good” at relationships. Boys are more often encouraged to focus on performance. All of this gets ramped up in adolescence. If you want to hurt a boy, you make him feel weak and passive; with a girl, you make her feel socially inept and excluded.

These effects can be long-lasting. Girls who struggle with friendships as teens have far worse outcomes than boys who experience the same stress, Prinstein says.

This all metastasizes into the double-standards we dump onto successful women: kindness is weakness, friendliness lacks authority, and bossy is bitchy for women but a sign of good leadership for men.

“While developing their identity, boys and girls are looking at aggressive girls who are high in status, who are often also physically attractive: This creates an unrealistic, damaging prototype for what some girls may carry for their rest of their lives,” Prinstein told Refinery29. “That’s really damaging—not just for females, but for society.”

What’s an outcast, or a parent, to do?

The effects of popularity are profound. “What blew my mind was that being disliked, and excluded, and rejected changed the expression of our DNA, and put us at greater risk of inflammatory diseases and more viruses,” Prinstein tells Quartz.

That does not mean we have no control over the effects, he argues. We can reboot our own perceptions and biases around popularity, and help shape our children’s. “Parents can make their kids more likable,” he says.

They can model what it takes to build friendships beyond Snapchat. They can talk to their teens about the difference between likability and status, and let their kids know that status-seeking popularity may feel good in the moment, but might relegate them to depression and poor health later in life. (For evidence, see this study of 10,000 Swedish kids over 40 years, which found that likability closely predicted future happiness and income.)

Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, says we should challenge girls to think about why they like someone. Is it because they like being around her (“sociometric popularity”)? Or is she powerful, so that people are her friends because they are afraid of her (“perceived popularity”)? “Give your daughter a good reason to take popularity off its pedestal,” Damour writes.

And while the pursuit of the different kinds of popularity is not completely zero-sum, it’s sort of zero-sum. “Getting lost in the pursuit of status will come with sacrificing relationships that matter,” Prinstein says.

Another study, which looked at how parents model popularity for their kids, showed that popular moms tended to have popular kids and unpopular moms tended to have unpopular kids. But interestingly, the mothers who had the most anxiety-riddled childhoods also ended up with popular kids, most likely because they helped their kids avoid their own unfortunate fate.

“Those moms did really well because they invested in peer relationships,” Prinstein says. In other words, parents can help kids build real relationships, one play-date at a time.

Adults need to recognize how biased they are in favor of their own view of popularity. “There’s this remarkable power of adolescent memories to influence what we see,” Prinstein notes. Recognize that you are not in high school and you are not bound by the social hierarchies of that time, even if Instagram is doing everything in its power to tell you otherwise.

Social media can be your friend—just don’t let it be your best friend, or replace your real friends. You can capitulate to seeking as many likes and shares, get the short-term rush and then face the long-term consequences. Or, you can call a friend, get a beer, and become a little more likable.