Popularity Doesn't Really Matter for Adults — Or Does It?

If you want to be popular, being genuinely likable, rather than being 'high-status,' is healthier in the long run. (Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock)

I hated high school: I was unchallenged academically, it started too early for my night-owl ways (which have persisted though my life) and I disliked most of my classmates. Having come from a much-smaller elementary school where I got along with pretty much everyone, it was a shock for me to meet so many people who were, frankly, awful to me. This stemmed from the fact I was a feminist and an atheist in a school with a large evangelical Christian population — who regularly, and loudly, told me how I was going to hell for my non-belief.

I was not so much unpopular as invisible-by-design. I quickly realized that high school was going to be a four-year sentence best carried out by avoiding people as much as possible, listening to music in the back of the class, and mostly disengaging. I graduated with good grades and went on to a much happier, intellectually fulfilling, and socially fun time in college (and life).

So imagine my horror when I read professor and clinical psychologist Mitch Prinstein's assertion, “We never really left high school at all," in his new book, "Popular: The Power of Likability in A Status-Obsessed World." His explanation for this horrible possibility? "... our experiences with popularity are always occupying our minds," — and he should know. His book dives deep into all kinds of psychological research and data about what popularity is and how it defines us.

Could this idea that we never really leave our high-school selves behind be true? (Please say no!)

The answer seems to be: Kind of.

Why those social status moments still linger

Prinstein told Refinery29 (and further explains in the video above) that there are two kinds of popularity, an important distinction to understand:

"One type suggests people like us, they trust us, they want to spend time with us, they enjoy their time with us. That kind of popularity is really important — it gives us a benefit in life in so many domains, for decades, whether we experience it in childhood or if we’re likable as adults."

That likability is an important part of the equation makes sense, and matches my experience of growing out of high school where many people literally didn't know who I was, and the current day, where thousands of people read my writing and a handful of good friends care for me in good times and bad. That kind of popularity is ultimately about how much people genuinely like who you are. But there's another facet to understanding popularity:

"The second type of popularity is the one we remember from high school, that refers to our status; it reflects our visibility, our influence, our power — our celebrity, in some ways. There’s really interesting research showing that type of popularity — status popularity — does not predict long-term positive outcomes. In fact, it leads to despair, addiction, and relationship problems. But most people are still confusing the two types of popularity, and searching for the wrong one," says Prinstein.

Now, some people are both likable and high-status — about 30 percent of popular people have both traits. I remember these people from high school, and we can all look around and see them today. I think most genuinely and generally beloved movie stars; religious, business, and political leaders; and other popular celebrities have probably always been a mix of the two, and have carried that on to great success in their adult lives.

Why does the status-y kind of popularity take over during high school? It comes down to neurobiology, says Prinstein: "It's the development of our brain, the growth of our receptors for oxytocin and dopamine. And together, those make us really crave social bonding and rewards, along with a desire for social rewards, a.k.a. the experience you get when you feel you’re being accepted or noticed or approved of. The fact that it all comes online so strongly and so quickly makes us look for any fast way to attend to our peers — to get noticed and approved of. Status emerges as a really fast way to do that."

Where it gets even more interesting is when Prinstein talks about the fact that popularity is heritable, or at least learned from our parents. Popular moms tend to have popular daughters, and unpopular moms' daughters also often reflect their mother's social level — except for those unpopular moms who really invest in their children's status and help them avoid what they saw as an awful fate.

I can relate to this as my grandmother, who raised me, was never popular either. She thought the whole idea of wanting everyone to like you was, in her words, "bunk." Indeed she was kicked out of several high schools for bad behavior, which was most of the rebellious, talk-back-to-authority, rule-breaking kind — which I did at the same age. Thankfully, my speaking out against sexist norms and other issues at my school was more acceptable in 1995 than in 1935. Unfortunately for my grandma, her parents only cracked down and sent her to finishing school and then off to marry, whereas I was given more space to be who I was and to express myself, which then enabled me to explore and establish my own personal life in my own way during college.

Likability matters in the long run

friends hang out at party outside
Hanging with people who genuinely like you — who make you laugh and accept you for who you are — is a good bet at any age. (Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock)

So if you're a parent, should you help your child be more popular? Or is this something we should all be working on? Prinstein says the data points to the importance of the likability side of the equation. "There’s so much research now demonstrating that kids who are likable do better in just about every domain of childhood and adolescence. Even decades later: They get further in education, they get better grades, they are more resilient in the face of stress. The kids who are dislikable and unpopular: They tend to have more difficulties," he says.

But the status side of popularity — pursuing that can actually hurt a kid (or adult) long-term because it will never be fulfilling: "...no matter what office you’re elected to, or a number of Twitter followers you have, it will never be enough. You will always be looking for more and more status. It is perpetually unfulfilling, ultimately quite desperate, and kind of pathetic." People who were high-status in their youth tend to have issues with friendships and romantic relationships. Drug abuse, anxiety, and depression are more common in later life.

So it seems that pursuing likability, and avoiding status-seeking to gain popularity, is the key to long-term success and happier life, from what Prinstein discovered. And it has the added bonus of not making mid-life feel like high school all over again.