June 06, 2017

Mitch Prinstein

Breaking down the popularity contest
Interview by
We asked Mitch Prinstein a few questions about his research into popularity and his surprising findings. 
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Ah, the teenage years. It was either the best of times or the worst of times, depending on who you ask. In Popular, Mitch Prinstein looks at one of the biggest factors of those years: popularity. Why are some people prom kings while others can't even get a prom date? Why does one coworker seem to always get the glory while another can barely get a word in? Prinstein looks at the factors behind popularity, both in adolescence and in adulthood, as well as its effects in this fascinating book. We asked Prinstein a few questions about his research into popularity and his surprising findings. 

What led you to undertake a scientific study of the nature and effects of popularity?
Even as a kid, I was always fascinated by popularity. What makes some people so much more popular than others, and how does our childhood popularity affect us for the rest of our lives? Scientists have been investigating popularity for decades, and over the past 20 years in my lab, we have been examining all kinds of ways that our popularity with peers can change how we think, how we behave and even how popularity changes our body’s stress-response systems and DNA—all without us even realizing it!

In your book, you make a distinction between status and likability. What exactly is the difference between these two seemingly interchangeable things?
When we were young children, our most popular peers were those whom we preferred to spend time with, those who were benevolent leaders of our playgroups, and those who made us feel good. This is likability, and when peers like us, it offers a ripple effect benefitting us for the rest of our lives. In adolescence, a new kind of popularity emerges, however, based far more on how visible, dominant, influential, and even “cool” some teens can be. This is status, and it turns out that it can hurt us in the long run.

Is status a more perishable and less dependable quality than likability?
Status is not based on joining with others, but rather dominating those around us. It tends to be maintained by acting aggressively, which ultimately tends to alienate peers. This is probably why most of those with the highest status also are the most disliked people we know. This wasn’t true only in high school, but also in every corporation and community today.

Can a person who’s been unpopular throughout childhood and who has low self-esteem change attitudes to make him or herself more likable?
Likability can absolutely change, but it can be harder than it seems because it requires us to recognize how we are repeating patterns that made us unpopular since grade school. Without us being aware, our prior experiences with popularity are changing the way we observe the word around us, the way we interpret every interpersonal interaction, and all of social decisions.  

Do you think that social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have helped elevate status over likability?
Social media isn’t inherently evil, but it can be misused, and perhaps even promote an obsession with the “wrong” type of popularity. If Facebook offers a chance to catch up with old friends, stay connected, and maintain genuine relationships, then it is helping to maintain likability. But if we start using social media only to amass “followers” or cultivate “likes,” and forget that these tallies anonymous approval are merely markers of status, then we may lose sight of the kind of popularity that really matters. In fact, evidence suggests that an obsession with status is related to a host of psychological difficulties, including substance use, failed relationships, and ultimately unhappiness. 

What are some of the negative effects of unpopularity during childhood? What about the positive effects of unpopularity?
Dozens of scientific studies now have demonstrated that those who are disliked by their peers are at greater risk for a range of mental health difficulties, addiction, poorer quality friendships and romantic relationships, poorer work performance, less educational attainment, lower income, more health problems, and even early mortality. But it is those same unpopular kids who also grow up with superior perspective-taking skills, a more realistic sense of the future, and a greater capacity for empathy. Perhaps most important, childhood unpopularity is most likely to lead to these outcomes only if left unchecked. I hope Popular will allow readers to recognize how their childhood experiences may still be affecting them today, and help them benefit rather than suffer from their pasts.

Is popularity a factor in all the cultures you’ve studied?
Scicentists are still learning about the similarities and differences in popularity around the world. So far, there is good evidence to suggest we all experience our high school years in fundamentally similar ways. However, it may be that Eastern cultures place less emphasis on “status” than we do here in the USA, and in other westernized cultures.  

You say that likability is the “most powerful kind of popularity there is.” Is this true even for those who likability is apparent only to a small circle of acquaintances?
Yes! The effects of likability come from the ways it changes our daily interactions – in a manner than may seem insignificant moment to moment, but as research suggests, tends to snowball across time and contexts to truly change our entire life course. Likable people are afforded extra opportunities to learn new social skills in every interaction, while dislikable people tend to be denied many of those same opportunities.     

In your acknowledgments, you say that your wife, Tina, is the “most likable woman [you’ve] ever met.” Assuming this assessment is more scientific than political, have you traced the roots of her likability?
I admit I may be a bit biased, but she truly is extraordinary! And if you had ever met my wife’s parents, you would not find it hard to trace the roots of her popularity at all! In the book, I talk about the ways that parents can create an environment that calls forth the most likable traits in their children.  

What are some of the mistakes parents make when trying to make their children more popular at school?
Some parents want their children to be popular, but they do not yet understand the difference between the two types of popularity. This can have ill-effects, because we don’t necessarily want our children to be the “most popular” homecoming kings and queens or the alpha males and females – studies show that these folks tend to have worse outcomes than those who were average in popularity.

As you see it, was Trump’s election a triumph of status over likability?
I completed the book before the election, and then watched as so much of the research summarized within it came true. As a scientist who studies popularity, his election was not terribly surprising at all – studies have long demonstrated how status can be a powerful draw, and others will follow those who have this form of popularity. But in the weeks that followed, we witnessed why the pursuit of status can be so unfulfilling, and ultimately lead to profound discontent. Even as president, status-seeking continued (inauguration crowd sizes, popular vote margins, "Celebrity Apprentice" ratings, and so on). There has never been a more powerful demonstration of why a focus on this type of popularity can be perpetually unfulfilling. #Sad.

To what degree is Popular a how to book for achieving popularity?
It’s not really about that at all, actually. Rather, I hope that those who read the book will feel better about whatever experiences they had in high school, recognizing that popular or not – our pasts continue to affect is in the present. Popular also offers a chance to learn about the power of likability and how to use our natural instincts to genuinely connect with others and resist the temptations our modern world will offer to seek status instead.

(Author photo by Somer Hadley at Revolution Studios)

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By Mitch Prinstein
ISBN 9780399563737

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