Who knew that being a dweeb in high school could have such long-lasting influence on how we see the world and how it sees us? Ultimately, how well or how badly we fit in with others, Mitch Prinstein argues in his book Popular, is the dominant factor in what we become both professionally and personally. Now a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Prinstein confesses to having been a social outsider himself as a teenager—and one who, like most of us, strove mightily to achieve peer acceptance. The drive to be popular is part of our evolutionary engine, he maintains.
But popularity comes in different guises. It may arise from status (dominant personality, wealth, athletic prowess, physical beauty, extraordinary intelligence, etc.) or from simple likability (characterized by openness, friendliness, an interest in others, a willingness to share or following the rules). Of these two types, Prinstein says, “likability continues to be relevant to us throughout our lives and has been shown to be the most powerful kind of popularity there is.” Status is a shakier foundation on which to build. Indeed, he worries that the lure of status—especially the kind of easy but ephemeral visibility conferred through social media—may compromise “our ability to distinguish between good and bad.”
Obviously, we don’t begin life knowing all this. So from infancy onward, we may find ourselves socially marginalized by our physical appearance, aggressiveness, defensiveness, inability to interpret social cues or kindred forms of maladjustments. While these flaws are by no means fatal to our future success, Prinstein concludes that they will almost certainly take a toll on our health, happiness and often our professional advancement. The good news, he says, is that once we realize the negative impact these traits are exerting on us, we have ample opportunities to change how we react and, thus, make course corrections toward a sunnier horizon.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Mitch Prinstein for Popular.